Over the next 12 months, the country will become a fully 4G market, and even before the government launches its 5G plans, operators like Bharti Airtel have started deploying pre-5G technology that will increase data speed by three times and capacity five- to sevenfold. At the first India Mobile Congress that started in the capital on Wednesday, rather than focusing on the ongoing fight between operators, both Reliance Industries chairman and managing director Mukesh Ambani and Bharti Group chairman Sunil Mittal chose to focus on the big picture — while Ambani spoke of rising 4G penetration, Mittal spoke of MIMO or multiple input multiple output technology. While Ambani did not mention his capex, Mittal said Bharti Airtel would spend Rs 18,000-20,000 crore this year to build digital infrastructure.
Ambani’s 4G projection implies more than 500 million people will migrate to 4G in a year’s time, and given Bharti Airtel is in the process of shifting to VoLTE — it has been commissioned in Mumbai with plans to go national by the end of the current fiscal — the numbers look realistic; Bharti Airtel itself has 281 million million subscribers. Vodafone India and Idea Cellular are also conducting trials and plan to launch VoLTE by the first half of calendar 2018. The availability of low-cost VoLTE phones is critical for the move. While Reliance Jio has introduced a Rs 1,500 VoLTE feature phone wherein users need to subscribe to a minimum Rs 153 monthly plan, Bharti and Idea are also in talks with handset manufacturers to manufacture low-cost VoLTE phones.
Domestic manufacturer Intex has already announced its plans to come out with a 4G VoLTE phone priced at Rs 1,999. Another domestic manufacturer, Micromax, which makes 2G feature phones, is also working on a 4G feature phone to be priced under Rs 3,000. A few months ago, Lava already launched its 4G feature phone priced around Rs 3,000. Analysts agree that Jio’s move to get to make 4G feature phones is a major disruption that would see 2G phones go the way 3G phones did with the advent of 4G smartphones. Sanjay Kapoor, telecom analyst and former Bharti Airtel CEO, said that with Jio’s launch the death of 2G phones is natural, the same way as 4G smartphones led to death of 3G phones.
Currently, there are around 780 million mobile handsets in the country, of which 500 million are 2G handsets and 150 million are 4G smartphones.
Ambani in his address said that he is optimistic that India, riding on the back of a digital revolution, will grow to a $7-trillion economy in the next 10 years, from $2.5 trillion, and rank among the top three economies in the world. “Data is the oxygen of a digital economy. We cannot deprive Indians of this vital life-sustaining resource. We have to provide ubiquitous access to high-speed data at affordable prices,” he emphasised. “India’s time has come… Each large tech honcho is looking at India,” Mittal, said terming the country as an emerging showcase for digital technology. While Ambani and Mittal spoke of the big picture, the CEOs of their companies, Gopal Vittal and Himanshu Kapania, at a CEO’s conclave sought immediate relief for the stressed telecom sector and slammed high levies, increase in spectrum cost and regulatory norms.
“Taxation on industry is very high. It is in the range of 29-32%. Spectrum cost is one of the highest and tariff being one of the lowest. All of this needs to change to realise dream and vision of Digital India,” Vittal, Bharti Airtel MD and CEO for India and South Asia, said. Idea’s Kapania said recent market developments have drastically altered industry dynamics, resulting in the sector passing through a phase of severe “financial and mental stress”.