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India launches 5G services at last

India finally kicked off its 5G network with Prime Minister Narendra Modi making the first 5G video call to students on Saturday.

The launch in select cities will expand to cover the entire country over the next couple of years, a government statement said.

The services aim to provide seamless coverage, high data rate, less delay in internet connectivity and highly reliable communications. But whether Indian users will be able to enjoy the seamless experience soon is still in doubt. 

India had plans to roll out 5G services back in 2018. However, the cost of putting in the infrastructure seems to be delaying the process.

India had a government auction for airwaves in July, with bidders from the country’s major mobile operators Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, as well as Indian billionaire Gautam Adani’s Adani Enterprises.

A total of 72,097.85 megahertz (MHz) or 72 gigahertz (GHz) of spectrum across Low (600 MHz, 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1,800 MHz, 2100 MHz, 2,300 MHz), Mid (3,300 MHz) and High (26 GHz) frequency bands were put on the block.

As operators use a combination of different spectrum bands to deliver 5G services, it will play a critical role in determining the type of 5G experience their customers demand.

Jio, India’s biggest mobile carrier with more than 420 million customers, snapped up airwaves worth $11 billion in that $19 billion 5G spectrum auction.

It also raised more than $25 billion to roll out its 5G services within two months since its announcement in August, but a sizable rollout in India also depends on the finances of its rivals.

According to Bloomberg, Airtel and Idea have a combined net debt of $37 billion, and the latter warded off bankruptcy by giving 36 percent of its equity to the Indian government earlier this year.

Airtel launched its 5G services in eight cities on Saturday and has set March 2024 as the deadline for countrywide coverage for as many as 5,000 towns.

Jio said it will start by covering four metropolitan areas in October and hopes to reach most cities and towns in 18 months.

Lack of 5G infrastructure 

However, India’s 5G infrastructure, particularly fiberization, might be the biggest hindrance for telecom conglomerates.

Fiberization is the process of connecting radio towers via optical fiber cables. It helps fully utilize network capacity and carry large amounts of data once 5G services are rolled out. 

Only 33 percent of India’s towers are fiberized compared to the 65 to 70 percent in South Korea and 80 to 90 percent in the U.S., Japan and China, according to a 2021 report by India Infrastructure Research. 

India’s fiber kilometer (fkm) per capita is lower than other key markets, too. Ideally, a country needs 1.3 kilometers of fiber per capita to ensure good fiberization. However, India’s fkm is just 0.09 compared to 1.35 in Japan, 1.34 in the U.S. and 1.3 in China, the report said.

“To the time when we really can boast about giving a great customer experience, I think we are two, three years away,” said an independent analyst Sanjay Kapoor in an interview with CNBC.

(With input from agencies)

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