India's telecom industry is angling for a leadership position in 5G, the next-generation mobile technology that is expected to start appearing in commercial networks in early 2019.
While India remains the second-biggest telecom market in the world in terms of subscribers, it has generally been seen as a follower and not a leader when it comes to the development of new technologies.
But the country's operators now see an opportunity to change this perception and are already starting to invest in 5G-like technologies.
Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL), for instance, recently said it would deploy a smart antenna technology called massive MIMO (for multiple input, multiple output), which aims to boost mobile network performance by adding many more antennas to receiver and transmitter devices.
As part of its $9 billion Project Leap-branded network overhaul, it has already deployed MIMO in the cities of Bengaluru and Kolkata and plans to expand this technology to other parts of India soon. China's ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763) is reported to be working with Airtel on the MIMO rollout.
Airtel has also recently teamed up with South Korea's SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) in areas including 5G standardization, NFV (network functions virtualization), SDN (software-defined networking) and the Internet of Things. (See India's Airtel Calls on SKT for Tech Help.)
Rivals Vodafone India and Idea Cellular Ltd. (which are merging their operations) are also believed to have conducted MIMO trials and be on the verge of launching services. ZTE, meanwhile, has carried out "pre-5G" trials Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Reliance Jio, the disruptive new entrant that has caused so much upheaval in India.
India's government is also keen to seize the 5G initiative. Telecom minister Manoj Sinha recently said authorities would come up with a firm roadmap ensuring India was in a position to launch 5G services by 2020. The government also committed 5 billion Indian rupees ($76.4 million) to 5G research and development in India, believing the technology will aid digitization and boost GDP.
Yet while the industry is putting its collective weight behind 5G, India still remains predominantly a 2G market. Mobile broadband penetration in the country is just 16.8%, and 49.5% of the population were unconnected at the end of 2016, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) .
That said, the market is clearly going through a big shift, with major telcos upgrading and expanding their networks to meet the growing needs of an increasingly digitized economy. The launch of 4G services by Reliance Jio last year also has already hastened the take-up of 4G in India. Rivalry between RJio and Airtel might now act as a catalyst for the speedy launch of 5G.
— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading