Airtel’s 5G trial highlights India’s spectrum issues

Airtel’s 5G trial highlights India’s spectrum issues

Indian operator Bharti Airtel was able to claim a first this week with the trial of a live 5G network in the Hyderabad region using the 1.8 GHz band. However, the company’s CEO is not keen to celebrate until more spectrum becomes available.

According to Indian press reports the operator believes it can use its 4G resources to help it launch 5G commercially; it does, apparently, have the network upgrades required. However, this would mean using dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), which the operator sees as offering a limited 5G experience and also undermining 4G provision. 

DSS has aided 5G launches in a number of markets already, including Brazil and South Africa. However, Airtel’s CEO Gopal Vittal has apparently insisted that a true 5G experience is only possible after the government allocates mid-band spectrum (2.5-3.7 GHz) for the new networks. This, the company believes, would enable the low-latency, high-speed service the network (and something like one million 5G-capable devices already in circulation) apparently needs. 

Competitor Reliance Jio has announced plans to launch a 5G network in the second half of 2021 – but will the spectrum be available by then? India was supposed to auction off several bands for 5G usage last year, but this has been postponed. The plan now is to auction off the 3.3-3.6 GHz band later this year, after a 4G auction scheduled for 1 March. 

The price of 5G spectrum and what spectrum will actually be offered remain the main issues worrying India’s operators. There’s still uncertainty, for example, over whether the 26GHz-28GHz band will become available. And even when the auctions actually happen operators will face the challenge of charging for 5G in a way attracts customers but that also boosts ARPU.

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