India opens up 5-GHz band for Wi-Fi and 5G free of charge

india spectrum wi-fi 5G
A BSNL poster in Hyderabad advertises its Wi-Fi hot spot service. (Notice the gratuitous 5G reference. -Ed.) Image credit: fotosunny / Shutterstock.com

India’s government has reportedly opened up spectrum in the 5-GHz band that mobile operators can use for Wi-Fi and 5G with no license or spectrum fee required.

According to ET Telecom, a government notification has designated the 5150-5250, 5250-5350, 5470-5725 and 5725-5875 MHz bands for Wi-Fi services as part of its Bharat Net broadband project, which aims to roll out 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots in India’s rural areas. The government reportedly hopes the move will encourage urban Wi-Fi rollouts as well.

Mobile operators will also be able to use the bands for indoor 5G coverage using technologies like license-assisted access (LAA), a 3GPP technology that enables operators to combine licensed cellular spectrum and unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum in the 5-GHz range to boost capacity for their mobile broadband networks. LAA technology also works with LTE networks.

The government aims to encourage more rollouts of both Wi-Fi and 5G, the latter of which the government wants to see launched in the country by 2020, although some analysts have observed that operators will be hard pressed to hit that target given the mobile market’s heavy competition, razor-thin margins and spectrum costs.

In any case, the decision to allow operators to use the 5-GHz band free of charge is the latest sign that the Indian government is becoming increasingly aware that with cellcos already struggling to survive in the wake of Reliance Jio’s free voice/data broadside – which itself is credited for spurring a wave of industry consolidation – spectrum prices have to come down if operators are going to deliver on its 5G ambitions.

Spectrum prices in India are notoriously high – so much so that in October 2016, when the government put over 2,354 MHz worth of spectrum on the auction block, 60% of it went unsold, especially the “beachfront” 700-MHz and 900-MHz bands.

Last month, according to Business Today, the independent Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) proposed slashing the base price for 700 MHz band spectrum by 43%, and putting 8,293.95 MHz worth of spectrum on the block also at reduced prices, including the 3.5 GHz band for 5G usage, the price of which would be set at around one third of what cellcos paid for 2G 1800-MHz spectrum in 2012.

Rajan S. Mathews the director general of mobile operator group COAI, said at the time the TRAI proposal was welcome news, but added that the mobile sector is in such bad financial shape that lowering spectrum prices won’t actually help much:

“Until and unless the SUC [spectrum usage charges], licence fees and other levies are lowered as well, the industry may not be able to cope with the requirements for state-of-the-art infrastructure needed for new technologies and early roll-out of 5G,” cautioned Mathews.

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