For over two years now, India’s leading telecom operators—Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel—have talked a big game about 5G. Beyond simply committing to roll out the next generation of mobile networks in the country, the two rivals have repeatedly stated that they would even develop and even export 5G technology. 

As the country inches towards its next round of spectrum auctions, however, Indian telcos suddenly have cold feet. Despite rarely seeing eye to eye on anything, both Jio and Airtel came together to ask the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) for a one-year extension of 5G trials. The trials were meant to expire on 26 November. This would effectively push the auction, which communications minister Ashwini Vaishnav believes could take place as early as April 2022, well into 2023.

The government granted telcos a six-month extension, likely in the hopes of sticking to its desired timeframe. However, it is unlikely that India’s telcos will have more of an appetite for 5G that soon.

While there have been multiple reports in the media of the ongoing 5G trials being a great success, the ground reality is markedly less promising. According to multiple industry executives who spoke to The Ken, half-truths were fed to the press.

Though telcos reported peak throughputs of 1.5Gbps or more, in reality, these trials weren’t indicative of an actual user’s experience of the service. Many speed tests were done standing bang in front of the 5G radio antenna, with bandwidth distributed across just a dozen-odd devices. How the network will perform in real-world conditions—say, in a 500-metre radius with 1,000-plus devices concurrently, is unknown.

Jio’s home-grown tech, announced with much fanfare over a year ago, is not ready. The company is also grappling with the realisation that it does not have the telecoms chops to develop end-to-end 5G tech. According to a tech vendor who has been in talks with Jio since 2020, Jio has sunk the better part of three years and $60 million, but has only managed to develop the core of the network and small cell radios.

More concerningly, the tech Jio did produce didn’t perform optimally when used in combination with third-party tech provided by vendors such as Samsung, said multiple sources close to both the Korean electronics major and Jio. A detailed questionnaire sent to Jio elicited no response.

Airtel, on the other hand, was banking on using open network architecture, where it could mix and match tech from various vendors. In June, it partnered with IT services major Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in June to incorporate the latter’s indigeneous 5G tech in its networks. “The technology, scheduled for trials in January, is not even in the lab at the moment,” said a top executive with one of telecom operators. Airtel did not respond to The Ken’s request to participate in this story.

AUTHOR

Pratap Vikram Singh

Pratap is based out of Delhi and covers policy and myriad intersections with the other sectors, most notably technology. He has worked with Governance Now for seven years, reporting on technology, telecom policy, and the social sector.

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