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Coronavirus Lockdown To Cause Huge Setback to 5G Rollout in India

Updated: May 28, 2020

The ongoing coronavirus crisis has already affected over 47.5 lakh lives and left nearly 3,50,000 people dead worldwide. The pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 virus strain has also put a strong impact in India, with over 100000 confirmed cases and more than 3,000 deaths reported so far. But apart from its hit on individuals the COVID-19 outbreak has put major pressure on the economy. The nationwide lockdown to reduce the coronavirus spread is in verge of completing 60 days, has also put a stop on various plans that were made to uplift our lives.

One such plan was the rollout of 5G networks in India. Countries like South Korea, USA, UK and China have already started rolling out the next generation high speed 5G networks, with South Korea being the first one and China being the latest but the largest 5G network. The next-gen wireless technology provides amplification in terms of speed and latency over what we get from a 4G network. In the areas where 5G has rolled out already, we do find this to be true as- low-band 5G can deliver upto 250 Mbps in download speeds, mid-band 5G can go upto 900 Mbps, while mmWave can deliver close to 1.2 Gbps even beyond. And with Ookla recently claiming that though 5G uses higher radiation than 4G, but it’s relatively less harmful to living creatures than 4G, there will be no major health issues also with it.

Although the Indian telecom sector has lately been struggling due to several financial challenges, the government was set to kick off a spectrum auction in late April or May 2020. Though, all three of India’s private operators- Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea unanimously agreed that the base price for the 5G was too high and would not attract bidders, but the Indian government’s Department of Telecommunication (DoT) was pointing that a 5G spectrum auction this year would have attracted few bidders. It would have taken the government’s Digital India initiative to new level by supporting millions of connected devices and powering Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) among various other developments. But now due to this epidemic situation unfortunately for India, 5G isn’t on the cards right now, and the wait might even get longer as the government is mulling a deferment of 5G spectrum auctions all the way to 2021.

Effect on India’s Smartphone market

In February 2020, with the launch of IQOO 3 5G in Indian market, the country got it’s first 5G enabled smartphone and since then we have seen a number of such phones from other companies like Realme (Realme X50 Pro 5G), Samsung (Samsung galaxy S20 ultra), OnePlus (OnePlus 8 and 8 pro) and Redmi ( Mi 10 5G), with practically no network in the Indian market so far to offer 5G experience on their models. And according to last quarter’s mobile sales report the 5G enabled phones have acquired 2% of the total sales, which is definitely not a small number in a country with 1,369.56 million people.

But now, the anticipated delay in 5G rollouts from the side of network providers is expected to discourage smartphone makers to consider India as a potential market for their compatible offerings. As already we have seen a lot of such phones getting launched globally, but not coming to India as soon as expected or getting launched as their 4G variant.

Teasers with initial tests, but nothing beyond

Recently Indians were hopeful about 5G with Jio 5G teasers on internet and also with the Bharti Airtel- Nokia tie up for 5G infrastructure, but those were only some initial 5G tests conducted in the country. The pandemic however, has shifted the entire focus of the operators towards providing seamless connectivity to the users who are locked down or working from their home.

Being highly optimistic, nothing before 2022 for sure

Under previous optimistic timelines, if the spectrum auction would have been complete in mid-2020, and field trials would have begun in 2021, commercial 5G was expected to be made available in late 2021. Since the auction is expected to be pushed back to some time in 2021, at least seven months away, we can expect all subsequent plans to be pushed back by a corresponding period, and commercial availability gets pushed further to mid/late 2022. Remember this is also a highly optimistic timeline as one has to keep in mind the current financial situation of the Indian telecom operators along with the effect of this COVID-19 epidemic on them, and how swiftly they can come out and recover from the pandemic induced lockdown measures.

Long story short, in the current situation where hundreds of people dying regularly throughout the world, as in India too due to this epidemic spread of virus. And even more numbers of people are struggling for food and shelter, India along with the world should overcome this challenge, and come up healthy and stronger before our wait for next generation 5G experience become longer and even more.