India pushes 6G, Vi falters on 5G, Jio goes after 4G

As India takes the next step towards 6G rollout, Vodafone Idea’s 5G deployment has been thrown into doubt, while Reliance Jio is working hard to build up its 4G base.

The Indian government this week formally announced the creation of the Bharat 6G Alliance, an outfit designed to foster global collaboration as the country pushes on with its ambitious goal to launch the next generation of mobile technology by the end of the decade.

The Bharat 6G Alliance follows on from the 6G roadmap – the Bharat 6G Vision – the government presented earlier this year alongside a 6G R&D testbed, all intended to help it reach its 2030 6G target. It describes the alliance as a collaborative platform made up of public and private companies, academic and research institutions, and standards development bodies, whose remit is to forge coalitions, realise synergies, and share knowledge with other 6G global alliances.

Indeed, just a fortnight ago US President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inked the US-India Comprehensive Global and Strategic Partnership, which covers a range of technology-sharing initiatives and amongst other things will see the Bharat 6G Alliance and the US Next G Alliance work together to foster public-private cooperation between vendors and operators in 5G and 6G mobile.

One of the key goals of the Bharat 6G Alliance is to help push forward the development of homegrown 6G technologies in India and to facilitate market access for the resulting products and services.

“These efforts shall promote technology ownership and indigenous manufacturing, create a culture of technology co-innovation, reduce imports, boost export opportunities and augment creation of Intellectual Property,” the government said in a statement. Essentially, this is all about positioning India at the forefront of global 6G development, a position many other countries worldwide also aim to adopt for themselves. How that could actually work in this era of 6G collaboration is anyone’s guess; doubtless much is in the marketing spin. That said, countries working together is always going to be a big plus for the telecoms industry.

Ashwini Vaishnaw, Minister for Communications, Railways and Electronics & IT, shared a raft of data on technology development in India over the past nine years, including statistics on falling data costs, a fourfold increase in the number of base stations to 2.5 million, and a smoother spectrum allocation process.

India now boasts 99% 4G coverage and the country has allocated 380 billion rupees (US$4.6 billion) to reach the last 1%, the minister said. The country’s telecom industry has invested more than INR2.25 trillion ($27 billion) in 5G to date, and have rolled out 270,000 5G towers. And in 6G, the country has clocked up over 200 patents, he said.

Those figures suggest a well-advanced telecoms industry. But the reality of the situation is that levels of development vary wildly between operators and economic groups.

As the government presented its 6G alliance, mobile market leader Reliance Jio unveiled its latest move to upgrade more customers to more advanced mobile services.

“While India is leading the 5G revolution on one side with the transformational Jio True 5G network, there is a section of society that is unable to reap the benefits of digital technology in entirety,” the telco said as it unveiled Jio Bharat, a low-cost 4G phone and platform of the same name.

Jio Bharat devices are aimed at the 250 million mobile users in India who are “trapped in the 2G era with feature phones,” Jio said. They retail at INR999 ($12) which Jio says is the lowest entry price for an Internet-enabled phone, while plans start at INR123 ($1.50) per month for unlimited voice and 14 GB of data. The telco aims to use the Jio Bharat platform to help other phone brands, aside from Reliance Retail, to build their own Jio Bharat phones.

It goes without saying that such a low-cost device potentially launching at scale – Jio is trialling it with 1 million customers from Friday – could have a big impact on competition in the market. While that could be great news for low-income Indian mobile users, Jio’s rivals will likely feel the pinch.

Speaking of whom, there is one company in particular that is feeling the pressure from all angles at present. The arrival of the Jio Bharat phone is just one more issue for troubled Vodafone Idea to contend with.

Vi, to give the telco its operating brand, is hugely behind the game, having yet to launch 5G in India well over six months after its larger rivals took their own services to market. And it looks set to fall further behind, with the emergence late last week of information that suggests the big western kit makers are playing hardball with it over 5G equipment contracts.

Nokia and Ericsson have reportedly declined to supply Vi with 5G equipment on credit, presumably fearing that the telco would fail to make repayments. The vendors will only provide equipment on receipt of an upfront payment from Vi, the Economic Times’ sources claimed. They refused Vi’s request for relaxed payment terms because the telco already owes them INR35 billion-INR40 billion (almost half a billion US dollars), and is making partial payments, but has yet to come close to clearing the balance, the sources said.

They noted that Vi recently took receipt of some 2G radios from Ericsson, but only after it paid the full amount owed.

If the story is accurate, that leaves Vi in something of a pickle, to say the least. From one angle, the state is pushing its 6G agenda pretty hard, along with some 5G R&D endeavours, and at the other end of the scale, Reliance Jio is seeking to hoover up as many of India’s 2G users as possible with attractive 4G terms. And Vodafone Idea sits uncomfortably in the middle, in a sort of limbo.


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