5G will be ubiquitous in India in next 3-4 years: Airtel CEO

Airtel counter attack
Bharti Airtel shopfront. Image by sn040288 | Bigstockphoto

Bharti Airtel chief executive officer Gopal Vittal said that 5G will be ubiquitously available in India in the next three to four years, but the scale of its availability in the short term will depend on the actual timing of the spectrum auction and pace at which the telecom regulator releases its pricing recommendations.

During the telco’s Q2 earnings call, Vittal said that telecom reforms by the Indian government will help the industry “preserve cash flows” and enable it to drive investments.

“There have also been substantial steps taken to simplify the way we do business by cutting back on several needless approvals and easing the customer onboarding processes,” Vittal informed analysts and media.

Last month, Airtel availed the government’s proposal of a four-year moratorium on spectrum and adjusted gross revenue (AGR) payments. The Sunil Mittal-led telecom operator will continue to be “fiscally prudent”, Vittal said.

Airtel will continue to invest in areas of massive growth such as broadband, data centers, enterprise business, digital assets and rolling out 5G networks, he added.

All Indian telecom operators recently urged the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to look into the availability, quantity and pricing of all possible 5G bands and their base price ahead of the next round of auctions.

Following their request, India’s Department of Telecom (DoT) in September sought fresh base prices for 5G and 4G spectrum bands, including 600 MHz, 700 MHz, 3.3-3.6 GHz, 26 GHz and 28 GHz.

The DoT also sought fresh base prices for 4G airwave bands such as 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz and 2300 MHz.

“A lot of 5G spectrum is still sitting with Defence [ministry] and TRAI is still working on the pricing…then there is 3.5 GHz, where a lot of spectrum is lying with Defence,” Vittal said. “How much spectrum is going to be available is another question and, of course, there is the mmWave (millimetre wave) band … so all of this spectrum will have to be put on the block, and I don’t know whether that can happen soon.”

Vittal said Airtel can decide on a staggered 5G rollout or a pan-India rollout “only once we have clarity on the spectrum pricing, auction timing, the specific bands on offer and quantum available.”

In the last three auctions, Indian telecom operators have skipped bidding for the premium 700-MHz band spectrum due to the high price.

Airtel’s top executive also downplayed the impact of the JioPhone Next, which was launched last week. Jio made available the JioPhone Next, co-developed by Google, for an upfront payment of Rs 2,500 ($33) with the balance payable in monthly instalments over 18/24 months. The price of the device, if bought without instalments, is Rs6,499 ($87).

Vittal said that he wasn’t sure if the new phone’s price would be able to drive mass migrations from feature phones to smartphones.

Preempting a threat from JioPhone Next, Airtel launched a Rs 6,000 ($80) cashback offer available on purchase of a wider range of 4G devices price upt o Rs 12,000 ($161).

Airtel is seeing “high interest” across several various states, he added.

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