When the entire world is talking about 5G, the Indian government seems to be going back to the Stone Age. Last month, the Department of Telecom (DoT) invited bids to install 214 telecom towers in uncovered villages and along national highways in Andaman and Nicobar islands. The 97-page bid document says, "USPs may deploy equipment to support enhanced capabilities and advanced services. However, support for 2G (voice) and 4G (data) is mandatory."
At a time when 5G technology is knocking at the doors of mobile communications, the need for 2G services, even in remote locations like Andaman and Nicobar, is totally out of place. The 2G services have several limitations when compared to 4G, which is where the majority of the telecom investments are going in currently. The 2G technology is used for primarily voice services. Though the data can be accessed on 2G, the speeds are comparable to a bullock cart. The 4G tech is used to deliver high-speed data and high-quality voice services.
Due to its limiting factors, many countries and telecom operators are shutting down 2G technology - some are even turning off 3G. For instance, Australia, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore no longer support 2G. The largest economy US is pulling the plug on 2G in 2020, while Taiwan will stop supporting 3G by the end of this year.
The biggest reason India still supports 2G is due to the vast number of feature phone users in the country - estimated to be about 500 million. These users are gradually shifting to smartphones - since handset prices are falling - after which they will be able to access 4G/5G technologies. From the consumers' point of view, affordability of telecom services - whether 2G, 3G or 4G - is no longer an issue since voice calls are free, and users pay for just data usage.
It doesn't make sense to deploy 2G at this point because the cost difference in setting up of 2G and 4G infrastructure is negligible. In any case, the DoT will be giving subsidies to operators from the USOF (Universal Service Obligation Fund), a fund aimed at boosting telecom connectivity in rural areas. The telecom companies would be better off spending money in futuristic technologies as they can offer more services on 4G/5G network than 2G network.
Operators like Reliance Jio, for obvious reasons, have raised concerns over the bid process. Jio, which has a nationwide 4G network, has called the decision "retrograde" and "unfair". Jio has reportedly said that this project will give an opportunity to legacy operators to deploy their old equipment even as they deploy 4G network in other telecom circles.
Interestingly, Andaman and Nicobar islands are part of West Bengal telecom circle, and Kolkata, which is also part of the same circle, was the first region to launch 4G services in the country.
The call to deploy 2G technology by the government seems ironic. In a press conference on Tuesday, telecom minister Manoj Sinha said that India may have missed the 3G and 4G busses but we cannot afford to miss the 5G bus. "It's an opportunity for us to move from the back benches, and be at the vanguard of 5G," the minister said.
Perhaps, the thought process of the government needs to match its actions.