5G developments are great, but 4G still has a long way to go in India

2016 has been the year of 4G, clearly. In this one year itself, we have seen telecom operators increase their 4G coverage circles throughout the country and new players come in. 4G handsets are seeing an unprecedented growth with market leader such as Samsung focussing on making only 4G VoLTE supporting handsets. Across price points. Data is the new voice. According to this report, data usage in India has doubled in the last three years. So what’s next?

Developments around 5G have already started gathering steam in India
Intel President Venkata Murthy Renduchintala, in an interview with The Times of India, stated that India can accelerate to 5G sooner than other countries. The reason, according to Renduchintala, was that India is not heavily invested in legacy ecosystems. Hence, there is no need to wait for the return on investments.

For instance, 3G services started off in the end 2008 when only MTNL was the provider. By the time private players such as Airtel, Vodafone and others got on to the 3G band wagon, it was already 2011. And 4G operations were started by Airtel last year, and we have seen more players providing 4G services now. We didn’t really get sustained 3G service ecosystem, before moving on to 4G. But things are different with 5G.

The promise of 5G is immense. We have already read reports of how 5G is going to be a game changer, how it will be an evolutionary step in the telecom cycle, Qualcomm has even announced its first 5G modem chipset solution – X50. The use cases for 5G will be applicable beyond mere internet connectivity on your laptops or phones. The Internet of Things (IoT) is a major product segment that will be addressed using 5G.

Technology Speeds Primary Services offered
1G 2.4kbps Basic voice services; analog protocols
2G 64kbps Digital phone calls (GSM, CDMA standards); text messaging; GPRS data capabilities
3G 384 – 2000Kbps Phone calls; multimedia messaging; rich internet connectivity
4G 100 – 450Mbps Phone calls; multimedia messaging; internet protocol for voice, data; faster broadband internet
5G ~ 10Gbps Building up on 4G; ultra low latency; IoT communications
From a consumer perspective, it will translate into more speedy internet connections with theoretical speeds reaching 10Gbps (downloading FullHD movies in seconds); ultra low latency which will reduce the time taken to send data from one device to another (4G latency is pegged at around 50 ms, 5G is expected to get that down to 1ms) which will be crucial for things such as driverless car tech or medical IoT devices for instance. But going by industry estimates it will be 2020 before 5G is available for consumers.

While 4G modems are being used in things other than handsets, devices such as smartwatches, CCTVs and so on, the fact remains that 4G wasn’t designed to be as robust to handle these different use cases. 5G is expected to be building up on these limitations and will be consolidating a lot of the standards to accommodate different use cases.

Also, unlike 2G/3G/4G services, the Indian government is also taking pro-active steps to ensure that India is 5G ready by the time it commercially rolls out in 2020. The government appointed research team working on 5G, has already filed over 100 patents, of which around 10 have been granted. According to officials from the government who spoke to Economic Times, “One-fifth of the cost of a telecom equipment is the royalty paid to the patent holder, so when we have a set of our own IP, it can incentivise domestic manufacturing and reduce costs.”

The promise of 5G in terms of data speeds is immense. It is particularly pertinent in our case, because we have at times ridiculous limitations to realising our full internet potential.

Data-hungry nation, where internet is rationed
According to this Pew Global Research report, around 22 percent of India is using the internet or owning a smartphone, as opposed to the global median of 67 percent (as of Feb 2016). So there is an immense scope for growth. Another interesting statistic is courtesy, which is an app that lets you measure internet speeds. According to this Forbes report, Speedtest showed a massive increase in the speed tests run in India in September 2016, which lifted the global numbers as well. 5 September is the date Reliance Jio went public with its Welcome Offer and commercially launched the Jio 4G services across India.

India is second largest internet consumer in APAC region, but has the lowest speeds. (Image: Statista)
India is second largest internet consumer in APAC region, but has the lowest speeds. (Image: Statista)
I have argued in the past, about how India is a data hungry nation. Free Google Wi-Fi services at railway stations have seen “average consumption per user on the network is 15 times the data they would consume on a 3G pack in a day”. Reliance Jio’s Preview Offer’s preliminary findings had shown that average data usage per month had been around 26GB. We love free Wi-fi for the simple reason that there is no limit on bandwidth.

But despite being the second largest internet consumer in the world, we have some of the worst average internet speeds in the country. A lot of the experience is also marred by unrealistic FUP rules, and of course, more recently, the post-FUP speeds of 512Kbps.

Improving the state of 4G
So while 5G is clearly the future, if one looks at it purely from a smartphone user or an internet user perspective, you would be losing the plot. 5G is much beyond that. 2022 is when Ericsson is expecting 5G to go mainstream with around 550 million users. It is great to see India already working on these technologies.

We have at least half a decade before we get there. That can mean five years spent in either improving the 4G eco-system in the country, or overlooking it in the name of concentrating on 5G, so that we get 5G right. For those who have been using smartphones over the last five years, we have seen how abruptly things went from 2G to 3G to 4G. For a majority of the users, 3G never really got a time to mature. Lot of us went from 2G to 4G. Another fact is that India went on to 3G and 4G, years after these technologies were mature standards internationally.

You can check out this Trai page to get an idea of speeds and 4G coverage areas in any corner of India. For many telcos there is a huge scope for improvement, both in the number of towers distributed and the speeds. Even a player like Jio, which has pan-India coverage acknowledged congestion issues in 8 percent of its towers which were leading to slow speeds for its users.

It is no surprise that a high speed sustained internet connectivity on a smartphone in India, is still a pipe dream for many. Even in cities, if you are in a congested network area, or in a place where your telco does not have strong signal or towers, you are faced with connectivity issues. No wonder, players such as Google and Facebook are working on internet focussed initiatives such as Project Loon and Project Aquila respectively, to get the next billion internet users online.

Investment in 5G is great news, but let us not overlook the current state of 4G. Just like 3G, we have got onto 4G later than a lot of developed countries. And unlike 3G (which did not have much time to mature), 4G still has close to 5 years, before it gets taken over by 5G. Advent of 5G will come with its own set of costs of upgradation – 5G modems inside chipsets for one, investments in micro-cells for propagation of 5G and so on.

Barring Reliance Jio which uses a 4G spectrum, the other three top telcos: Airtel, Vodafone and Idea are using a mix of 2G, 3G and 4G services on their spectrums. For instance, Airtel uses 1800MHz band for EDGE as well as LTE; similarly Vodafone uses 1800MHz for EGDE and LTE whereas Idea uses 1800MHz for EDGE only and 2300MHz for LTE. 2100MHz is used by all three players for 3G. In such a case, telecom operators have to take a stand as to what they want to push more on a particular frequency band based on the traffic in a particular region. Apart from the competitive nature of spectrum auctions and higher price points of spectrum allocation, telcos are spreading out voice and data on separate frequency bands. This will continue till voice is treated as a separate revenue stream. And for the top three telcos, revenue generated via voice services was greater than that generated by data.

Add in IoT to the mix and you see how it could create a bottleneck. With the IoT market expected to see a boom in the coming years, and with more and more wearables also getting a modem snapped on to them, the challenges for 4G’s quality of service (QoS) will be on the rise too. So one has to look at 4G not just from a smartphone, but also these other peripheral perspectives as well.

I am looking forward to 5G, but would definitely love to see more attention given to state of 4G as well.

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