Airtel to launch 5G within six months of auction; conducts first rural 5G pilot

Airtel 5G services
Image by Putilov Denis | Bigstockphoto

Bharti Airtel, India’s second-largest telecom operator, said that it will launch commercial 5G services within six months of spectrum auction, which are expected to take place during the January-March 2022 period.

Tuesday, the company’s chief technology officer, Randeep Sekhon, said that Airtel could cover a large part of the country with 5G services after one year of auction.

“Within two quarters after the auction, 5G networks can go live. After one year, we can see a large portion of the country getting covered by 5G,” he informed India media.

India’s IT and Telecom Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw recently informed the media that the auction for 5G spectrum may take place in January-February in 2023. However, the Indian government might miss this timeline unless the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) sends in its pricing recommendations of 5G bands by November this year.

India’s Department of Telecommunications, which is responsible for conducting spectrum auction, has recently sent a reference to the telecom regulator TRAI seeking base prices for 700 Mhz and 5G spectrum bands, including the millimetre wave or mmwave spectrum in 26 GHz and 28 GHz bands. It has also sought a fresh base price for spectrum in 4G bands such as 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz and 2300 MHz, which can also be used for 5G going forward.

In case of any delay, the DoT will reportedly conduct the 5G auction later in 2022 instead of following the new auction calendar recently introduced by the Indian government as part of the structural reforms.

The Sunil Mittal-led telecom operator said that its wireless network is fully capable for 5G, and it is working with various partners to further ensure readiness for the technology. Sekhon also noted that the telco is bullish on OpenRAN technology for 5G services, and some part of its 5G network will be built using new technology.

Bharti Airtel is preparing for Tata Sons/TCS’s OpenRAN-based 5G stack pilot testing in January 2023. It is also working with RedHat, Altiostar, NEC, Intel and Qualcomm to test and build OpenRAN products.

On Tuesday, Airtel said that it successfully conducted India’s first rural 5G trial with Swedish telecom equipment maker Ericsson on the outskirts of Delhi.

Airtel and Ericsson claimed that the trial demonstrated over 200Mbps throughput on 3GPP-compliant 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) device located more than 10km from the site.

The trial also showcased that a commercially available 3GPP-based 5G smartphone could connect to the test network and record over 100Mbps speeds at a distance of more than 10km from the site.

Airtel said the trial was carried out by utilizing the allocated mid-band trial spectrum in the 3500MHz and existing FDD spectrum bands.

“The trial showcases the massive potential offered by 5G towards bridging the digital divide by enabling access to high speed broadband through solutions such as enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) and Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) services,” Sekhon said.

Airtel’s 5G pilot network in Gurgaon, Delhi/NCR is powered by Ericsson. Previously both companies claimed over 1 Gbps speeds.

“The technology milestone of extended coverage achieved by Ericsson and Airtel as part of the ongoing 5G trial in India is even more significant since it demonstrates how 5G can ‘connect the unconnected’ in India, enable faster 5G rollout and truly help India realize its ‘Digital India’ vision,” Nunzio Mirtillo, Head of Ericsson South east Asia, Oceania and India said in the joint statement.

Airtel is currently testing various 5G use cases, including those for industries and enterprises. Sekhon said industries would be the primary users of 5G technology in India, and Airtel is already working with various industries like port, airports, mining, FMCG, and logistics.

“Industry 4.0 is already being enabled by 4G technology. 5G, however, will solve certain use cases with low-latency and higher bandwidth,” Sekhon said.

Sekhon once again reiterated that India’s own 5G standard, 5Gi, is yet to be tested in the country, thereby the telecom operator is focusing on conducting trials using 3GPP-approved 5G equipment.

“We are yet to see a lab where the technology can be tested. We are keenly watching the standard and its impact on handset and radio. However, we are currently looking at technology which is commercially already available,” he told the media, adding that 3GPP’s 5G standard is already matured globally.

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