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Jio Vs Airtel: Who Has The Upper Hand In 5G?

As we get closer to the 5G rollout, Airtel clearly has its nose ahead due to its approach to 5G

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The stalwarts of the telecom industry including Mukesh Ambani, Sunil Mittal and Kumar Mangalam Birla are all set to make a beeline for the India Mobile Congress 2022 (IMC) beginning on Oct. 1 as India eagerly awaits the rollout of 5G. Prime Minister Modi will be headlining the IMC event to launch commercial 5G services for the very first time in the country.

People in know report that Jio and Airtel will be amongst the first to get launched by PM Modi during the IMC. Taking into consideration the spectrum allocation, the fight is definitely between Jio and Airtel to take a lead on extending 5G to the masses in India. In fact, it also presents them with the opportunity to consolidate and grow their customer bases.

While Jio was the top bidder during the recently concluded spectrum allocation clinching 24,740 MHz of airwaves across five bands, Airtel wasn’t far behind. The Sunil Mittal-led telco acquired 19,867.8 MHz frequencies by ensuring a pan-India footprint via 26 GHz and 3.5 GHz frequencies.

As we get closer to the 5G rollout, Airtel clearly has its nose ahead due to its approach to 5G. The reason for this is the telco’s usage of the existing infrastructure and capabilities or Non-Standalone (NSA) operation – to roll out its 5G.

NSA vs SA

As the name suggests, Non-Standalone (NSA) will be a 5G service that doesn’t ‘stand alone’ but will be built over an existing 4G network. While Standalone (SA) will be working on a 5G core network and would not require any help from the existing 4G layer. But the SA ecosystem needs to be developed from scratch.

Airtel has opted to go with the NSA operation to roll out its 5G across India. This would undeniably give the company an edge over Jio, which seems intent on taking the SA route.

Relying on the existing 4G infrastructure to deliver 5G services faster seems to be a good move because it allows the second largest telco in India to roll out much faster than its arch-rival Jio. Of course, NSA also has the added advantage of all 5G devices working well under its umbrella while SA networks will come with the newer and flagship smartphones mostly.

But on the flip side, Jio’s vision for delivering SA 5G could make a huge difference as it delivers far superior internet speeds and voice quality in comparison to NSA 5G.

During the investors’ call with analysts, Airtel MD and CEO Gopal Vittal clarified that there were more advantages to using NSA 5G. Quoting the example of the US and South Korea where both NSA and SA have been launched, he said that it has been observed that traffic of SA 5G is less than 10 per cent of the 5G traffic.

Moreover, Vittal believes that 3.5 GHz traveling much further via NSA 5G is good news as 4G could take care of the uplink in the urban areas. Airtel believes that if further coverage is required sub-GHz layer 850 or 900 could augment the requirement.

Vittal said that NSA’s experience makes a lot of sense as it would allow for a faster call connect time on voice and provide a faster uplink than Airtel’s competitors, given its massive spectrum holdings in the mid-band. This consolidation in mid-band allowed Airtel to not make a big play for the expensive 700 MHz, which was clinched by Jio.

The 700 MHz Bet

In the previous two auctions (2016 and 2021), the 700 MHz band attracted no suitors. But all of this changed in 2022 with the arrival of 5G. The expensive band was eyed by everyone but eventually bagged by Jio, which poured in Rs 39,270 crore to acquire the 700 MHz band pan-India (according to media reports).

With the low-frequency band in its kitty, Jio has ensured something invaluable – better indoor network coverage as it carries well through the walls and objects. The 700 MHz is highly suited for wireless applications and covers long distances (7-10 km) and has recorded speeds of up to 300 Mbps in trials. And to top this off, this band operates at low power which makes the 700 MHz low-frequency band ideal for densely populated cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi.

While higher bands like 26 GHz promise to deliver speeds up to 1 Gbps, their coverage is questionable and even prone to disruption if massive buildings come in the way. Jio’s 700 MHz bet in such scenarios makes a case for being the best option even in terms of profitability.

But the 700 MHz band isn’t just about the Tier-1 cities. It could prove to be a trump card for Jio in the rural areas too. Why? It’s simple, the low-frequency band’s coverage over long distances at lower cost with decent 5G speed could make it the favourite amongst the masses that are away from the hustle and bustle of cities. Industry experts opine that Jio could gain 3-5 per cent in subscriber market share just on the basis of its 700 MHz dominance.

It would make sense for Airtel and Vi to go for 700 MHz in future auctions but the former has repeatedly said that it would not target the low-frequency band.

Jio’s insistence on SA 5G (which is most definitely the future) is bound to give the company an overall edge in 5G in the long run. Airtel will have to eventually move towards building their SA ecosystem as more speed and lower latency will be in demand inevitably.

During the RIL AGM 2022, Mukesh Ambani said, "With Jio 5G, we will connect every-one, every-place and every-thing with the highest quality and most affordable data. In addition to meeting India’s needs, we are confident of offering digital solutions to global markets”.

5G Smartphones

A recent report by GSMA Intelligence says that the number of 5G smartphones in India continues to be on the rise. There were around 50 million 5G smartphones in June 2022, with another 20-30 million expected by the end of the year. The number is expected to swell further with 5G becoming the choice of the consumer.

Source: GSMA Intelligence

While smartphones supporting 5G could tap into NSA in its current capacity, SA 5G will be supported by very few smartphones. But this difference could be mended through a software update from the phone maker. 5G Smartphones without the support for SA would be able to do so upon receiving an OTA update.

Jio’s Rs 2 lakh crore commitment for a pan-India 5G network and Airtel’s ambition to lead in the segment will make for an interesting jostle. Both the companies are vying to deliver 5G to every corner of India by the end of 2023.


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