This week, amidst much fanfare, telecom major Airtel launched its 4G services in Bangalore, making it the second 4G-enabled city in the country after Kolkata.

Airtel's fourth generation mobile broadband services are rolled out on the high-speed TD-LTE (Time Division Long-Term Evolution) network. With this, India becomes one among the few countries that have commercially deployed this cutting-edge technology, believed to be one that will become the de-facto standard for 4G in coming years.

What is 4G?

4G is the next generation of mobile communications that promises home broadband-like experience on wireless networks. Currently, Airtel offers a connection through a dongle or a Wi-Fi gateway (priced at Rs. 7,999 and Rs. 7,550, respectively), so the focus is on data and services, with no voice and text capabilities as of now (unless over VoIP).

This also perhaps has to do with the fact that 4G-enabled mobile devices are expensive, and even if introduced, will cater to an even more niche segment that 3G has. Alluding to pricing issues, at the launch, Bharti Airtel Chief Executive Officer Sanjay Kapoor said mobile telephony tariffs were “unsustainable”. However, industry watchers believe that the game changer in the 4G scene will be Reliance Telecom – reportedly conducting 4G pilots now – the only company to own pan-India spectrum.

What is 4G?

Now, if you're just about coming to terms with what 3G is, and are a bit at sea about these various generations and what they've come to represent, the simple bottom line is that it is a way to browse faster, download and stream more content, even access multiple services. 4G is believed to be the technology that will deliver the promise of the Internet: not just as a means to browse faster, but to do much more while 'on the move'. Once service providers start offering services, you will probably be able to experience the stuff that sci-fi of the eighties was made up of: a ‘smart' home where your appliances can be operated seamlessly through your phone, or schools becoming redundant because teachers are able to deliver lectures online to children in a hundred villages at a time.

In its primer to the media, Airtel says that download speeds on its 4G networks can reach up to 40 mbps and uploads up to 20 mbps, on the move. However, the technical peak speed requirements for 4G service is 100 megabits per seconds (Mbps) for high mobility communication (that is while on the move in vehicles) and 1 gigabit per second (Gbits) for low mobility communication (such as pedestrians and stationary users). These standards were prescribed by the the International Telecommunications Union-Radio communications sector (ITU-R) to bring some clarity to what exactly can be classified as 4G. World over, the definition of 4G is debated, because of several confusing claims about what 4G should do or can promise to do.

Key tech differences

Technology-wise what distinguishes a 4G network from others is that it uses packet data switching techniques (it does not support traditional circuit-switched telephony service), and communicates over Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). While the frequency used for 2G, 3G and 4G is all the same, the modulation differs. However, in the case of 4G the key difference from 3G is the introduction of the concept of time slots for each user. While state-run BSNL, and a few others launched 4G using Wimax technology a few years ago – BSNL has recently requested to surrender its BWA spectrum – 4G on an LTE backbone is being launched for the first time by Airtel in India. World over, India is among a handful of countries that have launched 4G/LTE. Long Term Evolution (LTE) launched in Scandinavia – it's called 'evolution' because it eventually hopes to evolve into actual defined 4G – in 2009. Tech specs and modulation apart, what this technology does in effect is to allow high speed and high volumes of data at lower costs.

While this launch has put Indian on the global map when it comes to 4G introduction, ahead of many other countries, given the partial success of 3G, launched in India in 2009, there's ample room for some healthy skepticism here. Inaugurating the first launch, in Kolkata, the Union Minister for ICT Kapil Sibal too commented on the low penetration of 3G technology, observing that “the benefits [of 3G] are not yet seen by the aam aadmi”. One of the reasons for this slow uptake has been the pricing. In a price-sensitive market like India, a device that costs over four times that of a regular dongle is unlikely to find a large number of takers. However, the rental costs (if one is to compare data plans offered now) are comparable to 3G services.

Another issue that 3G users were facing is poor network coverage, something that Airtel hopes to set right with LTE. The geographical coverage of Airtel's 4G network is around 25 per cent, and it plans to introduce these services in Hubli, Mysore and Mangalore.

Infrastructure hardware

Airtel has handed over the task of deploying and managing its network infrastructure to Chinese networking major Huawei, which already has a 45 per cent market share in providing hardware services to Indian telecom operators. With an eye on the 4G rollout, Huawei too, in recent months, has scaled up its India operations (technology, investments and human resources) and announced plans to set up a technology centre. Another Chinese firm ZTE is managing the device and network requirements in the Kolkata circle, while Maharashtra is reportedly being handled by Nokia Siemens.

Promise of 4G

Kaustav Ghosh, advisor, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, India, says that currently the value of 4G may not really be clear to the costumer. What will change the game is the kind of services that will be rolled out, he explains, adding that for this telcos will be looking at not only the retail costumer, but also at enterprise and businesses and the work towards the convergence of telcos and utilities such as smart homes, where you can access various utility platforms such as smart meters or appliances that can be operated through your phone. “Education and healthcare are very important and these are sectors where a country like India can make a difference by penetrating rural areas,” he says. Value-added-services will have to evolve around this technological opportunity, he says, that currently industry is grappling with the huge investment it has made and planning towards getting customers on board and delivering attractive services.