Yes, 5G Is Here — But Don’t All Rush Till They Straighten The Kinks

Yes, 5G Is Here — But Don’t All Rush Till They Straighten The Kinks

by Anand Parthasarathy - Oct 16, 2022 12:50 PM +05:30 IST
Yes, 5G Is Here — But Don’t All Rush Till They Straighten The Kinks5G at last...customers experience zippier speeds. (Photo: Airtel)
  • The 5G network is thin on the ground today; both coverage and data speed are still patchy.

    Many so-called 5G-ready handsets may require a software update.

    You need not change your SIM if you have a 5G phone, but a 4G phone can’t be upgraded to 5G.

    Consensus is, things will be more or less in place by year-end, but full nationwide network may take a year.

The auction of Indian telecom spectrum for the rollout of cellular services, including 5G, concluded on 1 August.

The government issued allotment letters to successful bidders by 18 August — very fast by normal sarkari standards.

Anywhere in the world, it takes about three months to upgrade existing networks to meet new standards like 5G — extensive hardware and software changes are required in the back-end and even on the radios placed on the mobile repeater towers.

To coincide with India Mobile Congress, a formal launch of 5G services was announced by the government on 1 October.

Most industry watchers felt it was an unrealistic target, and we now see the result. On 5-6 October, two of the four bidders for 5G spectrum have ‘inaugurated’ their 5G service in a manner that is best expressed by the Hindi phrase "namkey vastey (for the sake of it)."

Reliance launched ‘Jio True 5G Plus’ in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Varanasi, but to select customers only, as part of a trial. It promised a wider nationwide launch at Diwali.

Airtel announced the “fastest rollout” of its 5G Plus services. It is to be available in a “phased manner” in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Siliguri, Nagpur, and Varanasi — which meant that in each city only a small selection of PIN codes were chosen.

Vodafone-Idea decided (wisely as it turns out) not to announce 5G services right now, until it has all its bits and pieces in place.

Both the announced ‘launches’ were largely pointless. Since very few tower radios had been upgraded for 5G, the effective range and speed that customers could experience was very limited.

It was hardly an achievement that you could make a call from Connaught Place (Rajiv Chowk) to Janpath, but not beyond. Adding to the confusion, many so-called 5G-ready handsets seemed not to receive 5G.

After a week of largely negative publicity on social media, the Union Ministries of Telecommunications and Information Technology (MeitY) called a meeting on 12 October of all 5G stakeholders, including handset makers, service providers, 5G component makers, and industry associations to do a reality check and push for a faster, wider launch.

What does all this mean for us, the consumers, who have been waiting patiently for almost two years for the promised upgrade to 5G, which has already taken place in some 70-plus countries?

Here is the status on both fronts, device and network:

Do I need a new handset?

If your current handset is a 4G mobile phone, it cannot be upgraded to 5G by downloading new software. 5G needs a special 5G chip to work. That comes only with a 5G phone.

If you bought your smartphone after 2020 and it was a fairly pricey model, costing Rs 30,000 or more, chances are that it is what they called 5G-ready. (You can check the phone manufacturer's website.)

Will it work if your service provider has announced 5G in your area? It should, but it's not 100 per cent certain. If the tiny symbol on the top line of your display has changed from 4G to 5G, you’re in luck. Otherwise, your phone may need what they call a FOTA or Firmware Over The Top, which is a software update you can download from the manufacturer’s website.

The most recent models of the big selling brands, including Xiaomi, Oppo, One Plus, Iqoo Vivo, Realme, Motorola, Infinix, and Tecno, are 5G-ready and don’t need a software upgrade in India. Handsets from Asus, Nokia, Lava, and Google Pixel will need to be software-upgraded.

You might have thought the costliest phones today — the iPhones — at least in their latest versions would be 5G-ready. Sorry, the entire phone range from Apple will require a software update to work in India and the company, clearly not in a hurry, has said its customers will have to wait until December to enjoy 5G in India.

Some 10 Samsung models, including the new, high-end Flip and Fold models and the Galaxy S21/S22, are ready to use with 5G, but earlier models will need a software upgrade.

Airtel has published a useful checklist of which phone from which maker will work out of the box with 5G in India and which will require new software. Check here.

If you are thinking of buying a new phone in readiness for 5G anytime soon, especially as part of Diwali sale, it will be prudent to ensure that any necessary software upgrades are installed in the store and the seller demonstrates to your satisfaction that it is indeed receiving 5G.

Yes, this may mean no online purchase, unless you have strong faith in the seller.

Note also that you may not have to break the bank (or a piggy bank even) to acquire a 5G phone.

Indian smartphone maker Lava has announced that it would be offering the Lava Blaze 5G phone — with a 6.5-inch screen, a MediaTek processor, and a 5,000 mAh battery — around Diwali for about Rs 10,000, stealing a march over almost every foreign handset maker.

Network nitty gritty

The three service providers who are committed to roll out 5G consumer services in India — the fourth, Adani, is said to have acquired spectrum mainly for inhouse use — have significant logistical challenges to overcome.

They need to upgrade their back-end networking hardware and software as well as the radios that beam the service from the mobile towers in your neighbourhood.

The two leading providers Airtel and Jio have taken different approaches to this task. Airtel has said it will adopt the so-called "non-standalone" (NSA) mode, where the 5G network uses the same infrastructure as the 4G network.

Jio has opted for the "standalone" (SA) mode, where its 4G and 5G services are on separate and dedicated networks.

The standalone mode may offer some benefits to more discerning customers and enterprises, but it entails bigger initial investment in parallel networks.

The choice made by the service provider between these two options to carry 5G may not overly concern lay consumers. What will affect them most is how many of the millions of mobile towers all over the country will be upgraded for carrying 5G signals.

Service providers can be expected to do this in stages, starting with zones in cities where they have more 5G subscribers. So, there is bound to be some disparity, in the short term, in 5G coverage both in geographical area and data speed.

It may be a year or more before a reasonably good 5G spread is achieved. This has been the experience in most countries.

What impact will I feel?

It is good to ignore textbook definitions of 5G speeds and keep one’s expectations grounded to reality. In place of 10-20 MBPS that most of us enjoy with our current 4G data plans, we are being promised 1,000 MBPS or 1 GBPS.

This may not happen overnight. In a nationwide study conducted recently by Ookla (the people we turn to when we want to do a speed test of our internet connection), it found that “median” speeds around 500 MBPS were achievable in metros like Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai, although the lows could be closer to 100 MBPS.

Compare this with the current national average with 4G — 13.53 MBPS — and we can sense palpable progress.

5G-ready phones in major cities (Graphic: Ookla)
5G-ready phones in major cities (Graphic: Ookla)

The same Ookla study found that many Indian customers are already equipped with 5G-ready sets and waiting for the new service to be rolled out. The accompanying graphic shows the state of readiness of customers of the three leading service providers in various Indian cities. Hyderabad is a surprise leader in the preparedness of its mobile phone users.

In summary, Ookla finds: “89% of Indian smartphone users are ready to upgrade to 5G. Operators have an existing addressable base of devices that they can target from the start.”

5G phone affordability (Graphic: LocalCircle)
5G phone affordability (Graphic: LocalCircle)

Another national survey by community social media platform, Local Circles, whose results were released on 14 October, found: “Of consumers likely to move to 5G services, 20% already have a device that supports 5G and another 24% are likely to purchase one by end 2023.” 

The survey also finds: “Of those willing to move at some point, 45% are not willing to pay more than the current tariff for 3G/4G services…55% consumers are willing to pay more for it,  only up to 10% more though.”

These surveys generally point to the same truth: Indian consumers are ready and willing, given a chance, to move up to 5G — but only if they can afford it.

All we can say to the phone makers and operators is: what are you waiting for?

Read the full Ookla study with many more insights about India’s 5G road by principal analyst Sylwia Kechiche here.

Read the full LocalCircle study here.

Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.

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