Airtel may look at taking 100 MHz of 5G spectrum if it is affordable, but will be open for a lower quantum of airwaves if prices remain high, he said. Edited excerpts:
Have you finalized commercial agreements for deploying 5G gear?
As per the national policies, we are not buying from Chinese vendors for the radio or any core equipment. The other two (Nokia and Ericsson) are very much there in our networks and we’re talking to everyone who can sell to India and follows India’s policies. We will be able to work not just with traditional vendors, but with openRAN vendors as well. We are already in trial in Punjab with US-based Mavenir where we’re able to see 1 Gbps-plus speeds. So, necessarily, there will be a mix of vendors. We’re already rolling out the 5G architecture, but for RAN, which has to be imported, we will have to wait for the spectrum auctions.
With technology advancements, is 100 MHz still required for full-scale deployment?
About 100 MHz is ideal because that decides the speed and capacity, but if you look at European countries, there are operators who are using 40-60 MHz; so, for early demand, may be even 40-60 is good. But if the government makes it really affordable, we would like to get as much spectrum as possible to also secure our future needs. We have 55-60 MHz in every circle with our 4G, and it has filled up over the years. As an engineer, I would like maximum transfer spectrum to be made available, but as we hold these two pillars of cost leadership and experience leadership, if it is affordable, we will go for 100 MHz.
How hopeful are you as a leading telecom player that the government will reduce spectrum prices?
The government has made the right gestures on new telecom policy and I think the government is very supportive of the sector. They made spectrum life for up to 30 years, so I’m really hopeful that once they see how much 5G can do for not just the B2C customers, but also for other endeavors, which the government does specially for rural connectivity, rural education, industry 4.0 application and Make In India, then 5G-enabled industry will be bring in that efficiency and compete. So, I would imagine that the government will factor in all those things and bring 5G spectrum to really affordable levels.
What are Airtel’s plans on taking the 5G experience to the masses?
There will be a need of a content creator in say music like Airtel Wynk or Spotify, in video like an Airtel Xstream or Netflix or Prime, then the telcos’ job becomes enabling that higher immersive experience through the content for their subscribers who can pay directly. Some of the bigger OTTs which are getting into metaverse, whether it is for business, from a company like Microsoft, or for social media, like Facebook, they will expect us to deliver on the last mile, which is where 5G will come in. A deeper partnership will be needed on more specific use-cases and a telco will have to play a bigger role in terms of getting edge (data centres) ready to deliver this heavy content, unlike the 4K videos which are delivered through our CDNs (content delivery network).
From a consumer’s point of view, will 5G mean a separate subscription for immersive content and, hence, separate payment plans?
There are two things. A customer pays for 4G postpaid, prepaid or FTTH access today, and 5G will be similar, all he has to do is get a 5G device and we will keep rolling out the networks for the customers to get the services. Customer pays for the content separately; in some cases, we aggregate. So, it’s early days to say what models can come up. For instance, a Microsoft metaverse experience may allow us to do virtual meetings like we’re sitting physically across each other, for a subscription.
What kind of technology investments would Airtel need to enable immersive experiences?
Today, we have 120-plus data centres which are pan-India—through Nxtra, the largest network of data centres in India—but there are many more which are presently used for internal consumption, but we are ready to get them converted to edge where we can put a public cloud or an Airtel cloud, and we can bring applications on top.
What kind of investments will be needed for the infrastructure?
The first investment will go into spectrum and network rollouts, and because most of these are cloud-based, the investments will be on the fly. The second set will be towards the edge and cloud, which can be built and expanded as the consumption rises and use cases increase; so. I don’t think we will need a large investment.
What about 5G devices? Will Airtel target only premium users?
You’ll be surprised but there are many 5G devices on our network and the lowest costing 5G device is available for ₹15,000. Right now, people are upgrading naturally to 5G, but once the 5G launch happens and pan-India coverage is complete, you will find that people who really need faster speed Internet, will invest in 5G devices because it will give 10X experience improvement over what they get on 4G today. And, no, I don’t think there is any premium play here. 5G will be available to all customers who upgrade.