RCom May Soon Join 4G Race in India

India's Reliance Communications appears to be getting ready to launch 4G services in India now the Competition Commission of India (CCI) has finally cleared its merger with Sistema Shyam, which operates under the brand name of MTS India.

The deal with Sistema Shyam TeleServices Ltd. gives Reliance Communications Ltd. access to customers who are heavy users of data services. As India's only pure-play CDMA operator, MTS boasts around 9 million subscribers and annual revenues of about 15 billion ($223.9 million).

But a key attraction of MTS is the spectrum it holds in the 800/850MHz band, most of which it is licensed to use for the next 18 years. (In Rajasthan circle, the exception, its licenses are due to expire in 2018.) These airwaves are known to be ideal for deploying 4G services inside buildings.

This particular spectrum band was also the prime target of RCom in the last government-run auction, during which the operator 800/850MHz airwaves in 11 circles. "RCom operations are now future-proofed across all circles for more advanced LTE technology at the most optimal cost," RCom had said in a press note at the end of the spectrum auction in 2015.

RCom has also recently upped spending to both expand the coverage of its 3G networks and upgrade its core network for the rollout of 4G services.

"RCom is well positioned as the only operator in India with a national footprint of efficient and valuable sub-GHz spectrum in the 800/850MHz band, which is eminently valuable for high-speed data including 4G in the future," said the company in a transcript of an earnings call held for the quarter ending in June 2015. "RCom is presently conducting due diligence for a potential LTE launch during the course of this financial year."

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Even so, while RCom has been making 4G preparations, its chief rivals have pressed ahead with the rollout of 4G services. Indeed, RCom is now the only major telco in India that has yet to introduce a 4G offer. A service from market leader Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL) is currently available in more than 300 towns and cities, while that from third-placed Idea Cellular Ltd. covers more than 100 cities. Vodafone India , India's second-biggest telco, has also launched 4G in several parts of the country, while new entrant Reliance Jio has introduced a 4G service for employees and is likely to launch commercial services soon. (See Indian Incumbents Risk Tripping in 4G Race.)

One possible reason for RCom's restraint is the alliance it has formed with RJio. During a recent annual general meeting, RCom owner Anil Ambani said customers would be able to access RJio's 4G network in future. Both operators have recently signed a spectrum-sharing and trading agreement, and also have an infrastructure-sharing agreement in place.

In the meantime, RCom is also engaged in merger talks with Aircel Ltd. A tie-up, should it come about, will be in a much stronger position to challenge India's biggest players in the 4G market. (See RCom-Aircel Fine-Tune Merger Terms.)

— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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