With the conclusion of the auction of fresh wireless spectrum on 1 August, the launch of 5G mobile services in India is imminent.
Two weeks ago, Bharti Airtel e-announced the successful trial of India’s first 5G Private Network at the Bosch Automotive Electronics India (RBAI) facility in Bengaluru. Airtel’s on-premise 5G “captive” network for Bosch was built over the trial 5G spectrum allocated by the Department of Telecom (DoT).
Analysts at Global Data predict that healthcare, citizen-friendly financial services, smart cities and education are the sectors that the government will prioritise for 5G.
For those willing to pay a bit more, 5G phones have been available since 2019.
Three major private sector mobile service providers — Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vodafone-Idea — as well as new entrant Adani Data Networks, have all invested to varying degrees, in spectrum suited to 5G services. Airtel has announced it will launch its 5G services in September, with backend, radio and networking equipment from Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung. Reliance Jio in its announcement has not set a date but promises a pan-India 5G launch, thanks to its bigger buy at the auction.
While they get their act together, here’s a lay person’s guide to what the hype is all about and what it will mean for the rest of us.
What Is 5G?
5G stands for the new global wireless standard that will fuel the fifth generation of mobile networks. It comes after 1G, 2G, 3G, and 4G networks. 5G enables a new kind of network that is designed to connect virtually everyone and everything together including machines, objects, and devices.
The first generation (circa 1980s) was voice-only, using analogue technology. With Gen 2, in the mid-1990s this became digitally delivered voice with Short Message Service (text messaging). In the early 2000s, data was added to voice in third generation phones, allowing us to browse the Internet.
After 2010, we had 4G which offered broadband on mobile using technologies like LTE (Long Term Evolution) and VoLTE (Voice over LTE —the preferred tech for Jio phones) which promised speeds of 100 megabits per second — and in practice delivered 10-15 MBPS tops. This opened up the world of data-gobbling apps, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube.
What’s The Biggest Change That Comes With 5G?
5G is capable of much higher data speeds — theoretically, in multiples of 1 gigabit per second (GBPS) that is, 1000 MBPS. This could peak at as much as 20 GBPS but in practice, most of us will be lucky to experience 100 MBPS with 5G, that is 1/10th of a gigabyte. Still, even that will be 5-10 times faster than the best we get with 4G.
5G will also sharply cut down the latency — this is the lag between the time a packet of data is sent and when it is received, leading to those awkward gaps in many international calls, especially on those TV news programmes where the anchor talks to a correspondent. This gap could come down to 1/100th to 1/1000th of a second — which will be imperceptible.
So, What Does That Mean In Practical Terms?
Much faster downloads of movies, music and other multimedia files. As an example, a 2-hour long movie in 4K or ultra-HD format that occupies a file size of around 10-14 GB can be downloaded in 30 seconds to a minute.
I’m Not Into Movie Downloads. So, What Will 5G Bring Me?
Faster web services, online banking and shopping. You do a net-banking transaction today, send that Card Verification Value or CVV code or phone OTP, then wait in suspense for the payment to go through, and wait and wait…. That may end. Transactions will be almost instantaneous.
Online shoppers are already able to “try on” clothing or try out a gadget or “walk around” a new car or bike with augmented reality apps. Today only those with very fast data plans can do this. With 5G the field will be levelled — and all of us can enjoy such enhanced experiences. Ericsson has compiled a useful resource: “Powering the future of connectivity in India”. Read here
What About My Home WiFi Network?
No immediate change. But gradually Internet providers may do away with the fibre optic cables that now reach your home router — and provide the service via 5G wireless, much like the data package on your mobile phone. But this is a bit down the road.
So, Can I Upgrade To 5G On My Current Smartphone?
If it is a 4G phone, the answer is ‘no’. To receive 5G, it requires a special type of chip and only a 5G phone will have it.
If you happen to own a phone which claims it is ‘5G ready’, chances are good that it will work smoothly. But better to check if it is listed as compatible with your 5G service provider. When they made that phone, maybe in 2019-20, no one knew what 5G standard what country would adopt. Now a shakeout has happened.
The widely accepted global standard for 5G is somewhat confusingly called 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) from the agency that also created the standard for 3G and 4G phones.
India created its own standard called 5Gi, with some cool extensions that allowed more power on the handset and better reach in rural areas. There was some fear that if India insisted on telecom service providers and phone makers adhering strictly to the Indian standard, it would create compatibility problems with the rest of the world and turn India into a silo. Fortunately, good sense seems to have prevailed on both sides: The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and other standards bodies subsumed some features of 5Gi into 3GGP and on its part, India has agreed that any future iterations of 5Gi will be rolled out under the umbrella of 3GGP.
So, no worries on the score of whether a 5G phone you may now buy in India will work abroad — and vice versa. You will be good to go — anywhere.
And What Is It All Going To Cost?
If any one claims that a 5G service won’t cost more than 4G — take it with a hefty dose of salt. Among the things that the telecom players who bought all that spectrum recently plan to do, is beef up existing 4G services which are still patchy in some regions and don’t provide anything like the promised quality of service.
Many of them already increased the cost of 4G data plans over the last year. With the huge spends on the new spectrum, some of it in bands that are best for 5G, an increase in phone subscription costs may be inevitable. But the operators know the Indian market very well — where ‘paisa vasool’ is a fierce mantra.
So 5G may cost a bit more — but nothing in relation to the enhanced uptick in quality and speed. You can expect to pay Rs 27,000-Rs 35,000 in India for a fully featured 5G phone today and foreseeably till year end, which is only marginally more than a similarly featured 4G phone.
Corporate usage which will come earlier, may end up subsidising consumer packages to some extent. At least that has been the scenario in geographies where 5G has already been rolled out.
Here’s another thing to remember: upgrading the entire mobile phone network to the 5G standard, is a huge task and won’t happen for years. These are known as SA or Stand Alone networks, which are ‘made for 5G’ end-to end.
Operators will roll out 5G plans using existing 4G networks for starters. Last year, Airtel successfully demonstrated India’s first 5G experience over a live 4G network in Hyderabad. Jio has joined select phone makers like Oppo in its 5G demos. These 5G tests on existing 4G equipment, use what are called NSA or Non Stand Alone networks. That’s how they will be — at first — when 5G services are launched. The optimum 5G quality and experience will suffer some degradation as long as they are rolled out on 4G networks.
So, When Should I Upgrade To A 5G Phone?
Our sincere take for those who may be planning to buy a new (5G) handset: wait-a-bit.
Smart handsets are evolving at a fierce pace. Due to global Covid-induced chip shortages, many planned releases of 5G phones by the Big Five handset makers have been delayed. Meanwhile, chip designers are upgrading or tweaking the 5G features. These will need to be mass produced, then shipped before phone makers can incorporate them. Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan once said: “If it works, it’s obsolete”! Too true — when it comes to smartphones.
It will be late to end 2022 before lay users like you and me are offered a choice of 5G plans in the area where we live and work. By then a dozen new models of 5G phones will be in the market and competition will make for better prices. That will be a good time to buy a new phone or trade in an old device for a 5G wallah phone.
We don’t believe in wasting our hard earned money — or encouraging you to do so with yours. Yes, we are being a bit conservative here, but we’re saying: Think of going 5G? Think 2023.
Useful reading: If your thirst for info about 5G is not satiated by this brief FAQ, you might check out this resource at Qualcomm, titled: “Everything you need to know about 5G”.
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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