India’s hobbling 5G spectrum auction gait

Telecom operators must be ready to buy 5G compatible spectrum bands at competitive rates to ensure a boom of subscribers

Updated - May 31, 2022 07:05 pm IST

Published - May 31, 2022 04:34 pm IST

Representational image.

Representational image. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

India’s 5G moment is yet to arrive while several countries all over the world have rolled out their next generation mobile networks.

The Asian nation is one of the few major countries without a 5G network, according to Ookla’s 5G network tracker. It accompanies neighbours Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh to stay in the list of countries that has not rolled out 5G yet. Even the financially battered Sri Lanka has a functioning 5G coverage.

The world’s second-largest telecom market is yet to even auction the 5G airwaves, let alone the commercial rollout. Signs of the giant waking up are visible, but it has a long way to go as the country may roll out 5G mobile services only by the end of this year or early 2023.

During this year’s Budget Speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that 5G mobile services would be rolled out within 2022-23. “All leading telecom companies, including Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vi are testing their 5G networks under different trials. The government is also discussing with telcos and other stakeholders on the spectrum auctions that will be undertaken this year,” Sitharaman said.

The telecom regulator detailed its plan to auction around Rs 7.5 lakh crore worth of airwaves across multiple bands. TRAI has planned to auction both existing and new spectrum bands. Existing bands include 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz, 2300 MHz, 2500 MHz, and new bands are 600 MHz, 3300-3670 MHz and 24.25-28.5 GHz.

The country is also working to scale up its fibre optical coverage by laying additional million kilometres of fibre optic cable. The coverage currently stands at 1.5 million kilometres.

The next generation mobile connectivity is expected to unlock a $450 billion economy and further digitise the country. Last year, global services market for 5G technology was estimated to be $83 billion. That is expected to grow 23% annually to reach $188 billion by 2025.

The telecom regulator has recommended that a block size of 10 MHz for the 3300- 3670 MHz band and 50 MHz for the 24.25-28.5 GHz band be provided to telecom service providers (TSPs), and that the spectrum band be assigned in a contiguous manner.

TRAI has also recommended a 35-40% cut in baseline 5G spectrum pricing after TSPs repeatedly asked for rationalised 5G spectrum prices. But this drop is for a 20-year licence, instead of a 30-year one. That means the effective cut is somewhere within 10% of baseline spectrum pricing. It is unclear how companies like Jio, Vodafone Idea and Airtel will respond to this price drop.

The next generation mobile technology offers huge opportunities. According to India Brand Equity Foundation, over the next five years, a rise in mobile-phone penetration and a decline in data costs will add 500 million new Internet users in India.

To reap the benefits of a subscriber boom, telecom operators must be able to buy spectrum bands at competitive rates. And that part of the puzzle continues to be missing. It will be clear in the next few months as auctions get underway. Until then it won’t be a walk in the park, but a bootcamp in the forest.

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