Now Airtel wants to develop its own 5G network ecosystem via partners

Airtel 5G India
Image by Bakhtiar Zein |

India’s Bharti Airtel is developing its own 5G network equipment ecosystem in the country with the help of various US and Japan-based companies. The change in strategy will allow the Sunil Mittal-led telecom operator to have better control over the supply chain and reduce overall network deployment costs by looking beyond traditional vendors like Nokia and Ericsson.

Airtel has set up two research and development labs which are involved in designing 5G, home broadband, Internet of Things (IoT) and other wireline products. It has increased its investment having hired 100 engineers for these two labs in Bengaluru and Manesar. These engineers are currently involved in designing network gear along with testing of equipment based on OpenRAN technology.

As per a report by the Economic Times, Airtel is planning to initially take its 5G and other network technologies to markets like Africa, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It already has direct operations in these markets.

Interestingly, Airtel’s bigger rival Reliance Jio has already claimed to have developed end-to-end 5G gear and technology. It also plans to take its technology to telecom operators in African, Middle-East and Eastern European markets.

Both telecom operators are betting big on OpenRAN technology to develop their own 5G network capabilities.

Bharti Airtel has already begun work with companies like Mavenir, Altiostar, NEC, Xylinx and Sercom to develop a 5G product portfolio in the country. Some of these companies are collaborating with the telco through their local R&D centers, while NEC’s Japanese office is directly engaged.

Airtel has devised a strategy to locally produce all 5G and wireline products and is currently in advanced talks with US-based Flex and home-bred Tejas Networks. Additionally, it has taken a commitment from Nokia and Ericsson to provide all 5G equipment through their India factories.

“…a core team of engineers is working on this deep project for the past 12 months. The investment in these labs is already running into hundreds of crores and the company will scale this up,” a top Airtel executive was quoted as saying. “We want to work with technology partners to co-develop India specific hardware and software products.”

Airtel had earlier this year said that it manufactured 4G small cells through its partnership with Altiostar and Sercom. While Sercom manufactured the 4G small cells, Altiostar provided its software for the equipment.

The telco is now focusing only on the 5G portfolio, including radio, small cells, routers and massive mimo. “5G equipment cost is going to be significant and by adopting this strategy, Airtel is trying to bring down cost,” the executive said.

Airtel is also forcing its Core and Transport equipment suppliers like Nokia, Cisco and Ciena to begin local production. 

The executive said that Ericsson and Nokia will have to eventually adopt open technologies like OpenRAN. “They are fence-sitter right now due to competition and existing commercial base, but the change is imminent. OpenRAN will become mainstream,” he said.

Nokia and Ericsson are Airtel’s biggest suppliers of 4G gear in India.  Both European vendors recently won fresh radio network contracts from the telco, which is currently in a process of modernising and expanding its telecom network to prepare for 5G technology. 

As per media reports, Airtel will only work with US and European telecom vendors for its network in the country. It has started work to reduce dependency on Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE.

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