India, known for its abysmal internet connectivity, is looking for a data upgrade.
Last month, the Narendra Modi government created a Rs500 crore corpus to support the rollout of 5G network in the country by 2020.
The 5G technology aims to deliver about 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) in urban areas and 1 Gbps in rural regions, according to Manoj Sinha, minister of state for communications. By comparison, the record speed for 4G is just around 1 Gbps—that, too, in a lab trial. In the field, Reliance Jio has the fastest 4G network at a mere 18 Mbps.
Among its other merits, 5G offers significantly lower latency—a data transfer delay of one millisecond (ms) versus 30ms for 4G—and lower battery consumption.
But how feasible is the government’s plan in a country that still hasn’t completely switched to 4G?
Moving to 5G is more tedious and capital-intensive than earlier such shifts as it requires a discrete change in transport, radio, and core network components. But given the massive debts that Indian telecom firms have piled up and the severe pressure on margins amid the ongoing price wars, such massive investments seem highly unlikely. These pressures already played out during the last 4G auction, where nearly 60% of spectrum on the block went unsold.
Nonetheless, several private companies have slowly begun working at 5G deployment. Airtel, for example, is rolling out the Massive Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO) technology, a “key enabler” for 5G. China’s ZTE has already initiated “pre-5G” trials with Airtel, Vodafone, and Reliance Jio. State-owned telecom operator Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited expects to begin 5G field trials by March 2018. And Huawei has also talked about plans to launch the first 5G phone in India.
But these are all tiny pieces of a massive puzzle.
Deploying MIMO alone, for instance, does not signal the arrival of 5G, Amresh Nandan, research director at advisory firm Gartner, told Quartz. ”In order to earn a graduate degree in math, you have to study all the chapters and pass in all. Just because you have passed in one doesn’t mean you’re a graduate,” said Nandan, who does not expect 5G to become a reality for India over the next two to three years.
“Optimal quality, extreme flexibility, and cost efficiency of the 5G network…these will only develop gradually over time through the evolution of technology, architecture, and processes and information,” he said, estimating that “the real potential of 5G can only be realised post-2025.”
Yet, the fact that the world’s second-largest smartphone market needs to move to a better internet network is a “no-brainer,” said Satish Meena of US-based Forrester Research.
In India, 5G can dramatically improve user experience by supporting high-quality videos and speeding up file transfers. The biggest impact could be on new-age connected technologies, namely the Internet-of-Things (IoT).
Moreover, the Narendra Modi government’s Digital India dreams can only come true if the new network isn’t patchy and unreliable like its predecessors. In 2015, two-thirds of 2G and 3G users in mid- and small-sized cities dealt with inconsistent speeds and app usage outdoors; an almost equal share had difficulty loading web pages indoors. A year on, 4G posed the same problems.
“In India, we use standards without actually looking at the fine print,” said GV Anand Bhushan, a partner at corporate law firm Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas. “Broadband (capacity) in India is…laughable, almost like dial-up. 3G—was it really 3G, with the frequency and speed fluctuations?”
For instance, 4G vendors use terminology like “up to 60 Mbps (megabits per second)” but real-world testing reveals speeds closer to 4-6 Mbps, said Bhushan, who specialises in large-scale international technology contracts.
In any case, a robust network alone won’t be enough to realise the full potential of 5G. While the technology will no doubt enable the increased use of smartphones, wearables, augmented reality devices, and smart speakers, the truth is that these devices remain mostly unaffordable. And until prices come down, 5G won’t make a difference.