India set to postpone 5G auctions due to ongoing deadly wave of Covid

5G India SUC Vodafone Idea
Image by Anton Medvedev | Bigstockphoto

India has reportedly pushed the upcoming 5G spectrum auctions to the first quarter of 2022 calendar year with the country’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) focusing on ensuring seamless connectivity amid the ongoing deadly wave of Covid19.

The DoT is likely to postpone “critical” decisions on spectrum availability and pricing for the 5G technology. “It is unlikely that auctions will happen this year…the focus currently is on keeping networks stable,” a senior government official was quoted as saying by the Economic Times.

Another official told the publication that 5G trials will go on for at least six months and the government may also extend the timeframe to discover new use cases. “…there is no pressing need for an early sale, given that 5G trials to develop local use cases are just starting,” he said, adding that it will depend upon the progress made by telcos and auctions may be pushed further accordingly.

Earlier this week, the department formally approved 5G field trial applications submitted by Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and state-run MTNL. MTNL has operations in Mumbai and Delhi.

Reliance Jio is expected to conduct trials with Samsung, Nokia and Ericsson. It will also trial its own end-to-end 5G stack.

Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel will do 5G trials with Ericsson and Nokia in different circles. Both telcos had submitted a separate application to conduct OpenRAN-based 5G trials with US-based Mavenir. However, their OpenRAN applications haven’t received the nod from the department.

The DoT said that it was encouraging Indian telecom operators to conduct trials using locally developed 5G radio interface technology, 5Gi technology, which was recently approved by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

The first official said that Indian telecom operators may seek more time to trial the 5Gi technology.

Notably, private telecom operators and global gear vendors have been opposing the 5Gi technology claiming that it may not be interoperable with 3GPP’s global specifications. They previously said that making 5Gi-based networks mandatory will lead to higher deployment cost, resulting in delayed adoption of high-speed broadband service in the country.

The Indian government is yet to revise its key spectrum policy document, called the National Frequency Allocation Plan (NFAP), to include new 5G bands (26 GHz and 28 GHz) for commercial use ahead of the next round of spectrum bands.

Private telecom operators had previously raised concerns over inadequate availability of 5G spectrum for the commercial launch. They had raised concerns over the continuing delay at the government end in revising the NFAP-2018 many quarters after the International Telecom Union (ITU) had identified multiple new airwave bands for global 5G deployments, including in India.

Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea recently told the DoT that unavailability of spectrum in mmwave bands such as 26 GHz and 28 GHz will increase the cost of 5G network deployment in India, making the high-speed internet service unaffordable to Indian consumers.

As per the process, the DoT will need to seek pricing recommendations from the telecom regulator, TRAI, for these new bands. The regulator will have to run a consultation process, which will again take time, the report added.

Indian telcos have also been requesting the Indian government to lower the base price for 5G spectrum in the mid-band and the 700 MHz band. They had recently warned that the upcoming 5G spectrum auction could fail if the Indian government doesn’t reduce base price for spectrum earmarked for high-speed internet services.

The government is yet to formally take a call on spectrum pricing.

In March this year, the Indian government sold a total quantity of 855.60 MHz of spectrum in 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz, and 2300 MHz bands to Indian telcos. It sold spectrum worth Rs 77,814.80 crore ($10.66 billion) to Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea March.

All three telecom players collectively placed bids for 855.60 MHz of spectrum out of a total quantity of 2308.80 MHz spectrum which was put to auction.

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