Telco chiefs lock horns on 5G policy at IMC

8 Dec 2020

Senior officials from several of India’s largest telcos have spoken at the India Mobile Conference (IMC) virtual convention event, commenting on the challenges facing the industry and outlining their plans for the coming years.

The launch of 5G services in India was the main focus of most of the providers and officials discussed plans and opportunities for the new technology, as well as the potential challenges facing the development and adoption of the platform. Mukesh Ambani, the Chairman of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) – parent company of Reliance Jio Infocomm (Jio) – pledged that the cellco would ‘pioneer the 5G revolution in India in the second half of 2021’, with most interpreting the comment as a statement of intent to launch 5G services before the end of next year. The Economic Times also cites the official as reiterating the company’s earlier announcement that its 5G network would utilise hardware and technology components developed and manufactured in India. Rival cellco Bharti Airtel was more coy regarding its plans for rolling out and launching 5G services – stating that the technology would become the norm in the mobile broadband space in the next two to three years – but challenged the notion of India establishing its own 5G standards. Such a move, would ‘lock India out of the global ecosystem and slow down the pace of innovation,’ Airtel CEO Gopal Vittal was quoted as saying. Jio has supported the idea of India establishing its own 5G standards, dismissing concerns regarding possible interoperability issues and increased costs and arguing that the country cannot rely on ‘large-scale imports in this area of critical national need’. The approach is in line with the government’s goals, as outlined by PM Narendra Modi during the IMC, to establish India as ‘a global hub for design, development and manufacturing of telecom equipment’.

In a rare show of unity, meanwhile, the nation’s three largest private telcos – Jio, Vodafone Idea Limited (VIL, now operating under the Vi brand) and Airtel – each noted the importance of ensuring that services remain affordable. For its part, Vi addressed the disparity of the digital divide, with MD Ravinder Takkar highlighting the need to get ‘bottom-of-the-pyramid citizens’ to adopt digital services to ensure inclusive growth, adding: ‘Rural tele-density is just 59% vs 134% urban tele-density and nearly 450 million existing mobile subscribers still are not connected to broadband or don’t own a smartphone’. In a similar vein, Mukesh Ambani was quoted as saying: ‘As many as 300 million mobile subscribers in India are still trapped in the 2G era. Urgent policy steps are needed to ensure that these underprivileged people have an affordable smartphone … and actively participate in the Digital Economy.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, issues such as the levying of excessive fees were also raised by several of the speakers, with the MDs of both Vi and Jio calling for the government to address spectrum availability and pricing, particularly in light of the quantity of spectrum needed to support 5G services.

Away from 5G developments, Bharti Enterprises Chairman Sunil Mittal discussed the positive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the take-up of digital services, describing the pandemic as a ‘force multiplier’ for digitalisation. To address the increase in demand, Airtel has stepped up its efforts in the fixed line, enterprise and government segments, and has accelerated its fibre rollout programme. To that end, Mittal added: ‘We are excited about the prospects of joining hands with Bharatnet to cover more of India with fiber connectivity.’