The race to launch 5G has started. Months before the expected launch of Reliance Jio's 5G services, Airtel on Thursday introduced what it calls the country's first "live 5G service over a commercial network". The launch took place in Hyderabad where Airtel used its existing liberalised 1,800 MHz (megahertz) spectrum to provide 5G through the NSA (non-standalone) network technology.
In layman's terms, NSA uses the existing 4G core to deliver 5G services, whereas SA (standalone) 5G uses both the core and access radios of 5G. Initially, it's believed that telcos in India would be launching NSA 5G which will allow them to leverage their existing 4G network to deliver next-generation technology. The deployment of an end-to-end 5G network is likely to come at a later stage.
With the launch of 5G services, Airtel has done two things. One, it has grabbed the attention of consumers, which is especially important since Jio was planning to take a lead in the 5G race after its chairman Mukesh Ambani had announced last year that the telco would launch 5G in the second half of 2021. Airtel was also the first telco in the country to launch 4G in Kolkata circle way back in 2012.
The other thing, which is more crucial aspect of the launch, is the big U-turn from Airtel on its previous statements. For instance, in December, Airtel's chairman Sunil Mittal had said that India will be ready for 5G in the next two-three years.
Even as the government is still ironing out issues with the Defence Ministry and ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) to free up spectrum for 5G, the launch of 5G on 1,800 MHz band is an important decision. It not only paves the way for telcos to use any band to deliver 5G but also reduces their dependence on the government to auction the most-popular 5G spectrum - 3,300-3,600 MHz.
At the time of launch, Gopal Vittal, MD and CEO (India and South Asia) of Airtel, said that the telco will eventually refarm its mid-band spectrum (1,800 MHz, 2,300 MHz) to deliver 5G since it has adequate amount of spectrum available in that range. He added that "the full impact of the 5G experience, however, will be available to our customers, when adequate spectrum is available and government approvals received.
"Airtel said its 5G is capable of delivering 10x speeds, 10x latency and 100x concurrency when compared to existing technologies. The users of its 5G services in Hyderabad could download a full-length movie in a matter of seconds on a 5G phone. Airtel claims to have delivered a speed of 3Gbps (gigabits per second) which is three times higher than the speed demonstrated by Jio in its 5G trials with chipset-maker Qualcomm last year.
"Airtel can now switch on 5G through simple software upgrades over the existing network infrastructure. With virtually no change in radio assets and antennas and no major increase in operational costs, it will allow Airtel to roll-out 5G fast and wide. The same technology will also enable Airtel to deploy 5G in 3.5 GHz in future. Since mid-band spectrum has better coverage than high-band (3.5 GHz), it would also be valuable for improving 5G coverage," an official statement said.
Airtel's early 5G launch is driven by the availability of relatively-affordable 5G smartphones in the global market, and in India, experts said. "Handset makers like Xiaomi and Oppo have brought down 5G handset prices from what they were in early 2020. Over the next few quarters, the prices would come down further which will create a big use case (enhanced mobile broadband or eMBB) of 5G," an analyst said.
Airtel has tied up with Ericsson for 5G radios and Oppo for 5G smartphone support.
The early launch of 5G by Airtel has stunned some analysts who were expecting Jio, with a better balance sheet, to launch 5G ahead of others. Others think that the early-mover advantage is not going to have long-term benefits for Airtel. "The window of opportunity on such an edge is small. Over the next year or so, with 5G getting ubiquitous, the moat for poaching customer narrows (on the basis of coverage area) and then erodes altogether," said Utkarsh Sinha, managing director at boutique investment banking firm Bexley Advisors.
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