India 5G licensing on the back burner

India’s telcos may have got the go-ahead to trial 5G services, but it could be some time before they have 5G spectrum for commercial use in their possession.

Delays in allocating spectrum have been par for the course in India over the past decade or so, so it came as no surprise when the Economic Times reported that the government is planning to push the 5G auction back to the first quarter of 2022. It had been working on a loose timeframe of later this year.

Global events have conspired to derail the auction, with the Covid-19 pandemic taking its toll on India. The government is focusing its energies on ensuring network stability during the course of the pandemic, the paper said, quoting a government official speaking on condition of anonymity.

In addition, there are still decisions to be made on exactly what spectrum will be available for auction and how it will be priced, the paper added.

To date, preparations have been made for the sale of mid-band frequencies between 3.3 GHz and 3.6 GHz for 5G, with the industry making the usual complaints about the price of spectrum; the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has recommended a base price of 4.92 billion rupees (around US$67 million) per MHz. However, the government has yet to clarify whether it will also auction millimetre wave (mmWave) spectrum at 26 GHz-28 GHz, something the operators have been lobbying for. Should it add mmWave into the auction, it would need to consult on price and so forth, a process that could take some time.

The government will be keen to carry out the sale before the end of March next year though if at all possible, in order to be able to record the revenue in the current financial year.

In the meantime, the telcos are starting trials.

Earlier this week, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) granted permission to operators including Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio Infocomm, Vodafone Idea, and state-owned MTNL to carry out 5G trials, the big news there being that the list of vendors selected for the trials did not include any Chinese companies; the operators will work with Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and state-owned outfit C-DOT.

The trials will run for a six-month period, including two months for procuring and setting up equipment, the DoT said. However, later press reports predicted that this timeframe could be extended.

One of the Economic Times’ sources said the telcos could ask for more time, especially in the case of 5Gi, the Indian-developed technology variant being pushed by the state.

Extended trials could mean an even later 5G auction. It would be wise not to bet against it.

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