At telecom operator Bharti Airtel’s Bengaluru lab, a team of 50-60 engineers are hard at work. Even as India dithers on an auction for 5G spectrum, delaying the next generation of mobile networks in the country, this team is working to give Bharti a leg up when 5G inevitably becomes a reality in the country.

The goal of the project—which has even enlisted the help of engineers from partners such as US-based telecom vendor Altiostar—is to design and build a radio unit (RU). A critical network component—not to mention, the most expensive—the RU is what powers the antennas that beam 5G signals out. Bharti’s plan is to build its 5G network using open-source telecom architecture—or Open RAN Open RAN Open Radio Access Network It's an alternate way of building network with greater interoperability and competition —which allows it to mix and match software and hardware solutions.

On the face of it, Bharti is following in the footsteps of its arch rival Reliance Jio, which claims to be building an end-to-end 5G technology stack. The preceding few months have even seen a series of articles in leading business dailies claiming Bharti is creating intellectual property in areas such as 5G and Internet of Things, among others.

Like Jio, these reports indicate that Bharti, too, wants to sell its 5G stack to other markets. A closer look at the methods of the two operators, however, reveals two diametrically opposed approaches.

Bharti is looking to take advantage of disaggregation and open-source technology for the next generation of radio access networks. This, typically, accounts for over 70% of a telco’s capital expenditure. Before 5G, traditional vendors such as Nokia and Ericsson supplied proprietary equipment, meaning telcos were dependent on them for the software and hardware for radio access networks. This stacked the deck in favour of equipment vendors, driving up costs for telcos. 

Bharti intends to assemble the network’s various components from different vendors, using a systems integrator to stitch all of these pieces together into a high-quality white-label product. Not only will Bharti save on capital expenditure in its 5G rollout, says a senior executive with the operator, but it will also be able to pass these savings on to customers.

To manage this, Bharti is busy building its 5G army. At its Bengaluru 5G lab, which was set up in 2018, Bharti is still hiring engineers. The operator has also been poaching executives from Samsung’s R&D unit and Reliance Jio, multiple executives who work closely with Bharti told The Ken. Unlike rival Reliance Jio, though, Bharti is not hiring software coders because it doesn’t intend to develop products in-house.


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.

View Full Profile

Available exclusively to subscribers of The Ken India

This story is a part of The Ken India edition. Subscribe. Questions?


Annual Subscription

12-month access to 200+ stories, archive of 800+ stories from our India edition. Plus our premium newsletters, Beyond The First Order and The Nutgraf worth Rs. 99/month or $2/month each for free.

Rs. 2,750


Quarterly Subscription

3-month access to 60+ new stories with 3-months worth of archives from our India edition. Plus our premium newsletters, Beyond The First Order and The Nutgraf worth Rs. 99/month or $2/month each for free.

Rs. 1,750


Single Story

Instant access to this story for a year along with comment privileges.

Rs. 500


Annual Subscription

12-month access to 150+ stories from Southeast Asia.

$ 120


Quarterly Subscription

3-month access to 35+ stories from Southeast Asia.

$ 50


Single Story

Instant access to this story for a year along with comment privileges.

$ 20



What is The Ken?

The Ken is a subscription-only business journalism website and app that provides coverage across two editions - India and Southeast Asia.

What kind of stories do you write?

We publish sharp, original and reported stories on technology, business and healthcare. Our stories are forward-looking, analytical and directional — supported by data, visualisations and infographics.

We use language and narrative that is accessible to even lay readers. And we optimise for quality over quantity, every single time.

What do I get if I subscribe?

For subscribers of the India edition, we publish a new story every weekday, a premium daily newsletter, Beyond The First Order and a weekly newsletter - The Nutgraf.

For subscribers of the Southeast Asia edition, we publish a new story three days a week and a weekly newsletter, Strait Up.

The annual subscription will get you complete, exclusive access to our archive of previously published stories for your edition, along with access to our subscriber-only mobile apps, our premium comment sections, our newsletter archives and several other gifts and benefits.

Do I need to pay separately for your premium newsletters?

Nope. Paid, premium subscribers of The Ken get our newsletters delivered for free.

Does a subscription to the India edition grant me access to Southeast Asia stories? Or vice-versa?

Afraid not. Each edition is separate with its own subscription plan. The India edition publishes stories focused on India. The Southeast Asia edition is focused on Southeast Asia. We may occasionally cross-publish stories from one edition to the other.

Do you offer an all-access joint subscription for both editions?

Not yet. If you’d like to access both editions, you’ll have to purchase two subscriptions separately - one for India and the other for Southeast Asia.

Do you offer any discounts?

No. We have a zero discounts policy.

Is there a free trial I can opt for?

We don’t offer any trials, but you can sign up for a free account which will give you access to the weekly free story, our archive of free stories and summaries of the paid stories. You can stay on the free account as long as you’d like.

Do you offer refunds?

We allow you to sample our journalism for free before signing up, and after you do, we stand by its quality. But we do not offer refunds.

I am facing some trouble purchasing a subscription. What can I do?

Please write to us at [email protected] detailing the error or queries.