5G keeps up the pace, as price wars may belatedly transform home broadband - Hindustan Times
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5G keeps up the pace, as price wars may belatedly transform home broadband

May 23, 2023 08:40 PM IST

Even as India’s 5G map lights up faster than expected, it raises a few pertinent questions, about 5G coverage, tariff changes, and wireless home broadband

Stuttering video calls; stumbling music streaming; buffer breaks for video streams; e-mail attachments taking ages to upload — all annoyances — have now been relegated to the past, as India’s 5G networks swiftly cover large parts of the country. More of India’s 650 million and growing smartphone user base can access faster mobile internet — if they wish to.

Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio have sustained remarkable 5G network roll-out speed across telecom circles(Representational Image) PREMIUM
Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio have sustained remarkable 5G network roll-out speed across telecom circles(Representational Image)

Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio have sustained remarkable 5G network roll-out speed across telecom circles. At last count, Airtel’s 5G network is live in 3,000 cities. Reliance Jio’s 5G network currently covers over 3,972 cities. This, in a bit more than six months since commercial 5G launch.

“5G will play a crucial role in achieving India’s digital inclusion goals especially for bringing broadband to rural and remote homes,” said Nitin Bansal, MD, India and Head for Networks in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and India for Ericsson.

Even as India’s 5G map lights up faster than expected, it raises a few pertinent questions, about 5G coverage, potential tariff changes, and wireless home broadband.

Faisal Kawoosa, chief analyst at research firm Techarc believes the pace is sustainable through 2023. More so because there’s still a lot of distance to cover. “In fact, it can go faster provided operators get the equipment, since they are dependent on imports,” he points out.

“Bridging every town and key rural areas in India by September 2023 remains our commitment,” says Randeep Sekhon, Chief Technology Officer of Bharti Airtel.

Meanwhile, Vodafone Idea (Vi) still does not have a 5G rollout roadmap in place. Airtel and Jio haven’t released 5G-specific user data so far, but specifics may arrive in the coming weeks.

5G and mobile bills

5G data is available at 4G prices, for now. Alongside an all-you-can-use data buffet, Jio and Airtel offer optional upgrade to unlimited 5G data, per billing cycle. However, both schemes are under the regulatory scanner.

Vi has raised concerns that Airtel and Jio’s unlimited 5G bundles tantamount to predatory pricing, even though Vi doesn’t offer 5G services. No guidelines have been issued in this regard, thus far.

Nokia’s annual Mobile Broadband Index (MBiT) report puts India’s average data consumption per user at 19.5GB per month in 2022, which is expected to double by 2024.

Airtel has repeatedly hinted at a need to increase tariffs but refrained from making the first move even as Jio’s new individual and family postpaid plans target Airtel’s critical user demographic, a clear indication of a looming tariff war.

“I don’t see operators currently in a position to leverage 5G for real monetisation. A tariff hike will make sense when consumers get noticeable value from 5G,” says Techarc’s Kawoosa. “To my mind, we are far from it at the moment,” he adds.

In real-world performance, Jio’s standalone (SA) 5G which has no dependency on 4G network and Airtel’s non-standalone (NSA) 5G which builds on 4G infrastructure, aren’t very different.

Mobile analytics platform Opensignal's latest Mobile Network Experience Report for India illustrates Jio and Airtel’s 5G performance. For average download speeds, Jio clocks 315.3 Mbps, ahead of Airtel’s 261.2 Mbps. For upload speeds, Airtel (23.9 Mbps) leads Jio (18 Mbps).

Analytics firm Ookla, developers for the popular Speedtest app, have compared performance and useability metrics for 4G and 5G networks — their latest data pegs India’s median 5G download speed at 25 times that of 4G (also called LTE; 338.12 Mbps vs. 13.30 Mbps), while the median 5G upload speed is 4.5 times of 4G (19.65 Mbps vs 3.55 Mbps). There has been a significant upgrade of internet speeds on mobile networks.

Fibre broadband price wars

There is concern the mobile market may be saturating, though Jio and Airtel are gaining subscribers due to port-in requests from Vi users, for now. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) data indicates 804.90 million mobile internet users in January, with a muted 0.06% growth to 805.38 million in February.

Focus has therefore shifted to home broadband, a space that’s attained increased importance, with a persistent remote work culture.

The last major broadband tariff reconfigurations were in 2020, during the pandemic, when Jio and Airtel announced entry-spec plans, priced at 399 and 499 respectively. Regionally strong broadband players followed. Unique to the time, mobile networks in residential areas registered unprecedented load.

“Devices that will trigger fibre growth would include smart TVs, tablet PCs and connected devices that are essential to the present digital lifestyle,” says Kawoosa.

Jio’s new, ultra-affordable unlimited broadband plan, costs 198 per month, for 10 Mbps speeds. However, Jio hopes customers see value in a bundle that costs 200 more and includes a Jio set-top box with Live TV (they claim more than 550 channels) alongside OTT including Disney+ Hotstar, Sony Liv and Zee5.

They’re selling it as a connectivity insurance policy. “This new concept of a back-up connection allows homes to have an alternate broadband connectivity with an assured supply of data at an affordable price,” says a Jio spokesperson.

Airtel has responded with a 10Mbps unlimited data plan priced at 199. Contours are similar, with a 399 bundle including Xstream direct to home (DTH) for Live TV. Unlike Jio, no OTT subscriptions or optional speed boosts though.

The catch with Jio and Airtel’s ultra-affordable home broadband plans is, users need to pay for five months in one go.

5G FWA to redefine broadband?

5G, particularly mmWave frequencies (24GHz to 40aGHz for faster bandwidth), may provide a wireless alternative to wired broadband, without challenges that wired broadband faces, including last mile access. 5G FWA could deliver speeds up to 1Gbps.

Fixed wireless access (FWA) products, such as Jio’s AirFiber, are on the agenda.

“You can literally offer that service in a matter of hours. We are looking to launch this as soon as we hit critical mass with our 5G rollout,” said Kiran Thomas, director of Jio Platforms, during the quarterly earnings call.

Wired broadband statistics don’t make for pretty reading.

As of February, India’s latest numbers, JioFiber has 8.02 million subscribers, while Airtel Xstream (5.98 million), BSNL (3.54 million) and Atria Convergence Technologies (or ACT broadband; 2.14 million) follow.

“With household broadband penetration being merely at around 11%, FWA is the best way to bridge this digital divide,” Ericsson’s Bansal believes. Their research estimates as many as 235 million active 5G FWA connections in India by 2028.

However, costs will play a significant role, at least initially.

“Right now, any reliable 5G CPE will be upwards of $150 (around 12,300), which is not a sweet price point for the Indian market,” points out Kawoosa.

The CPE, or consumer premise equipment is as a router-esque device placed in a user’s home, which connects with a 5G network, to create a Wi-Fi network. Smartphone maker OnePlus will launch a Hub 5G router soon, but like Jio’s AirFiber, pricing is anyone’s guess.

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