5G map lights up in India as puzzle comes together
India’s 5G puzzle consists of three crucial pieces — availability of 5G across the country, software that smartphones need to latch on to 5G networks, and real-world performance.
Video calls without stutters. Streaming the football World Cup in Ultra HD without buffer breaks. Faster file sharing, to get work done quickly. It’s all happening; after initial stumbles, more Indian cities now have some extent of 5G coverage, and most phones have necessary software updates too. Outlook is bullish about 5G upgrades in coming months,although there are still gaps that need to be plugged. India’s 5G puzzle consists of three crucial pieces — availability of 5G across the country, software that smartphones need to latch on to 5G networks, and real-world performance.
Phones are ready for the party
In India, phone makers are releasing software updates for 5G-ready phones. Most have had success to varying degrees. Different network technologies are adding to the complication, but the Android ecosystem is largely up to date.
Apple’s iOS 16.2 update means Apple iPhone 12 and newer iPhones can finally use Reliance and Airtel’s iterations of 5G. Users will also have finer controls for standalone 5G, as well as data usage.
Google remains the last major phone brand yet to enable 5G services for its Pixel 7, Pixel 7 Pro and Pixel 6a phones. Google earlier hinted at a December availability, but that has not worked out. The latest test software, Android 13 QPR2 Beta 2, enables 5G on Pixel phones in India. The final release is expected in February.
“We are actively working with the Indian carriers to enable functionality at the earliest,” a Google spokesperson said.
Some phones require a different software layer to enable standalone (SA) 5G technology, which is causing a delay. Reliance Jio’s 5G network is SA, which is a 5G network built from scratch. Airtel has deployed the non-standalone (NSA) network, which adds 5G atop the existing 4G network.
“For SA networks, the update is more complex that involves turning on the 5G modem component and updating default network preference to 5G to catch on to a 5G signal wherever available. On the other hand, the update is comparatively simple for NSA networks,” explains Himanshu Tandon, Country Head of POCO India.
Airtel’s network has an advantage of wider compatibility. At this time, Xiaomi (around 23 phones), OnePlus (16 phones), Vivo (20 phones) and Samsung (27 phones) testify to an increasingly ready base of phones which have 5G enabled on devices.
“We have chosen a 5G technology that has the widest ecosystem in the world. This means that all 5G smartphones in India will work on the Airtel network without any glitch,” an Airtel spokesperson told HT, adding, “In other technologies, it is possible that as many as four out of 10 5Gphones don’t support 5G.”
SA has its advantages, including no dependency on the 4G network and multiple frequencies including 700 MHz. “Carrier Aggregation seamlessly combines these 5G frequencies into a single robust data highway,” said Kiran Thomas, CEO, Jio Platforms Limited, in a statement.
For Reliance Jio, the work continues. A sizeable number of phones, including the Apple iPhone family, Nothing Phone (1) and multiple Oppo phones, have already received updates. Jio and OnePlus have finalised necessary updates for NSA 5G for the OnePlus 10 series, OnePlus 9 series and the Nord family. These phones already work with Airtel 5G.
5G map is heating up
The roll-out is progressing with more than 50 towns covered by one or both operators. These are numbers confirmed by the government during the winter session of Parliament. Reliance Jio confirms to HT that the Jio True 5G network is now available in 93 cities across India. Airtel is matching the urgency.
“We have stepped up the speed and intensity of True 5G roll-out across the nation,” a Jio spokesperson said.
Latest numbers from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or TRAI, put the country’s mobile broadband user base at 789.10 million as of October (up from 783.99 million in September). This is the combined number for 3G, 4G and 5G services. This, as the total mobile user base tallies to 1,143.63 million, of which 1,016.81 million are classified as active subscribers.
In September, the total mobile user base was 1,145.45 million, which means there has been a 0.16% decline. One of the reasons would include deactivation of inactive connections, something mobile companies do regularly.
Late last month, Jio confirmed Gujarat is the first state in the country to get complete 5G coverage. In the past few weeks, Airtel has expanded 5G services in Bhubaneswar, Indore, Patna, Nagpur, Guwahati, Pune, Hissar, Vizag and Ahmedabad .
HT can confirm that a real-world check of the 5G roll-out in Delhi and parts of national capital region (NCR) illustrates that not all areas offer 5G connectivity, even now. This is true for Airtel and Reliance Jio. Both companies are in the process of upgrading existing tower infrastructure
Ericsson’s latest mobility report estimates that India will clock 31 million 5G users by the end of this year. That base will expand to 690 million by the year 2028. Mobile subscriptions in India are estimated to grow to 1.3 billion, which would put 5G’s share of India’s overall smartphone user base at 53%.
Industry analysts say it will take at least till early 2024 for widespread coverage of 5G networks across India’s urban centres. “I think we are going to see comprehensive urban coverage only by early 2024,” Faisal Kawoosa, chief analyst at TechArc, told HT.
The need for speed?
The theoretically faster 5G services are available as seamless upgrades without tariff changes. Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio enable 5G services on existing SIM cards too. Airtel users can enable 5G via the companion app on Android phones and iPhone. Reliance Jio still requires an additional step of registering for an invite, to use 5G services.
In this initial phase at least, 5G networks are delivering significantly faster speeds. Network insights company OpenSignal’s latest numbers estimate India’s average download speed at 242.1 Mbps, or megabits per second. In comparison, 4G manages just 14.7 Mbps. In tests, 5G peak download speeds touched as high as 690.6 Mbps.
Things are less profound with upload speeds — 5G networks return an average 21.2 Mbps average upload speed, compared with 3.9 Mbps on 4G. “While download speeds always attract the most attention, upload speeds are key to user experience, as sharing on social media or remote working activities, all benefit from fast upload speeds,” says the report.
Network analysis platform Ookla notes speed variations in different cities, with network load playing a role. “In Mumbai, one of the most densely populated cities in India, Airtel fell behind Jio, reaching 271.07 Mbps median download speed compared to Jio’s 515.38 Mbps median download since June 2022,” says Sylwia Kechiche, Principal Industry Analyst, Enterprise at Ookla.
In contrast, Airtel takes the lead in the city of Varanasi, clocking median download speed of 516.57 Mbps to Jio’s 485.22 Mbps.
“Jio was the only operator that acquired the 700 MHz band. This gives Reliance Jio an advantage compared to providers who have acquired only C-band, especially since the low-band spectrum allows for better indoor signal penetration in urban areas and also better coverage in rural areas,” says Kechiche.
It is no surprise that as mobile broadband speeds see a significant spike, data consumption is also expected to increase. Ericsson’s estimates say that India’s average monthly data usage on smartphones will increase from 25GB in 2022, to 54GB in 2028.