With an auction scheduled for next year, India has yet to award licenses for the new 5G mobile standard.
But its operators are still busy modernizing and upgrading their networks as they prepare for the technology's arrival.
Reliance Jio, which launched its service just four years ago, already has a full Internet Protocol (IP) network, making its task the easiest.
"We are all-IP network and that is giving us a head start towards our readiness of 5G," said Shyam Mardikar, Jio's group chief technology officer of mobility, at a recent industry event.
"Fiber, which is crucial for 5G, is also playing to our advantage," he said. "We had invested heavily in getting our sites fiberized. We are working towards finalizing the footprint and fine-tuning this 4G network."
"We are also looking at power readiness because the new radios will consume more power, and we need to upgrade the sites to handle new radios," he added.
By contrast, Vodafone Idea's strategy is based on using its 4G network to offer a 5G-like service.
This could translate into a competitive advantage ahead of the auction and take some pressure off Vodafone Idea to invest in costly new spectrum licenses.
"Our approach has been to prepare the network with as much of 5G technology as possible, so, irrespective of what happens in the spectrum, we will be able to provide many of the features, functionalities and benefits of 5G," said Vishant Vora, Vodafone Idea's chief technology officer.
To provide those 5G-like services, Vodafone Idea has focused on introducing cloud and virtualiation technologies into its 4G network.
"Today, we have done the highest degree of virtualization and cloudification," said Vora. "Cloudification is necessary to unleash the full power of 5G."
"Beyond virtualization, containerization is what we are doing now … we call it CNF [containerized network functions], and it is helping us to make the entire cloud so much more flexible and agile.
"So that's something we are doing to accelerate 5G-type of capabilities in the market without having to wait for 5G spectrum."
For Randeep Sekhon, the chief technology officer of Bharti Airtel, the main concern is about real estate.
"The biggest challenge is on the infrastructure side because it will need additional space on all the towers, especially on ground base installations," he said.
He also thinks operators must come up with new service offerings for both residential and business customers.
"5G will be a huge investment, apart from the spectrum," he said. "In that context, the business case of 5G will stand if there are both B2C and B2B use cases."
"Here, developing B2B use cases is another challenge because it is not like a broadband service. B2B use cases will need to be built bespoke for different industry verticals and even for a particular company."
Telcos also face some backhaul constraints in India.
Spectrum in the E-band (71-76GHz) and V-band (57-64GHz) is emerging as a popular backhaul option for 5G services, which may require ultrafast connections and low latency.
"Backhaul links using the V-band or the E-band are well suited to supporting 5G due to their 10 Gbit/s to 25 Gbit/s data throughput capabilities," said the GSM Association, an industry group, in a recent report.
However, this spectrum is yet to be released by the Indian government to the telecom sector.
India's telecom regulator wants it to be released without an auction, but telcos are not in favor of such "delicensing" because it would open those airwaves to non-telecom players.
"We are working on being backhaul ready [for 5G]," said Sekhon. "It will be a combination of microwave and fiber. The E-band and V-band, which the government has not permitted yet, will have to be allowed because they are critical [for 5G]."
"The government should see how it [E-band spectrum] can be made readily available to the operators," said Vora. "Besides, it is challenging to roll out fiber in India [because of inconsistent right-of-way rules in different parts of the country]."
Bharti Airtel has also been frustrated by the lack of consistency when it comes to right-of-way [RoW] rules. Different rules from one state to the next have resulted in delays, it says.
"The most critical requirement for Digital India is easy and affordable access to RoW so that we can reach subscribers and deliver the services they deserve," said Gopal Vittal, Bharti Airtel's CEO.
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— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading