India's Bharti Airtel touts 5G network readiness

India's second-largest service provider, Bharti Airtel, claimed the network is ready for a quick launch of 5G services during the recent earnings call.

Underplaying its legacy networks, Airtel's chief executive officer, Gopal Vittal said that all the elements of its wireless network, including transport, radio and core, are "totally future-proofed" for rapid 5G deployment.

The general perception is that India's largest telco, Reliance Jio, has the end-to-end all-IP network since it only launched services in 2016.

Secure perimeter? Bharti Airtel claims that it's already prepared for 5G rollout when it comes.  (Source: jbdodane on Flickr CC2.0)
Secure perimeter? Bharti Airtel claims that it's already prepared for 5G rollout when it comes.
(Source: jbdodane on Flickr CC2.0)

Meanwhile the older telcos, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, have legacy networks, not conducive to new technologies such as 5G. However, in the past two years Airtel and Vodafone have launched initiatives like Project Leap and Project Spring to modernize the networks.

Urban rollout

The company plans to launch a 5G network in the metro and large cities before expanding the network to other areas. This is the usual route for any new technology.

It is also likely that Airtel, like other global telcos, will focus on the enterprise segment initially for 5G and not the retail customer.

Significantly Vittal believes that the launch of 5G will not lead to considerable increases in capital expenditure.

"We do not believe that with 5G introduction, whenever it comes, we are going to see any material change in capex profile," Vittal said during the earnings call.

"As you invest in 5G, you will stop investing in 4G because capacity creation will be done on 5G, which will obviously be lower cost of producing a gigabyte, given that you have much higher spectrum in those bands."

Airtel recently conducted a 5G non-standalone (NSA) trial in the existing 1800MHz frequency band. In keeping with this, it hopes to acquire a pan-India spectrum that can be used to offer 5G services.

Going head to head

Network readiness is just one part of the equation, and the company needs to counter intense competition from a rival, Reliance Jio, which is trying to take the lead in the new technology.

Commenting on the 5G budget smartphone which Jio is launching in collaboration with Internet giant Google, Vittal mentioned that the company "had a plan in place to counter any potential competition from the much-awaited budget smartphone."

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.

Airtel is believed to be in talks with several domestic smartphone makers to develop economically priced devices. Even so, Vittal said the company does not believe in device subsidy.

"We've consciously stayed away from the device subsidy game as we believe that when customer upgrades happen, they don't necessarily remain with the telco offering such subsidy at the lower end of the market," he said.

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— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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