Successful 5G auction will bring India a bright digital future

Thanks to a successful multi-band auction, 5G in India has taken a big step forward. The country’s mobile operators have been assigned mid- and high band spectrum to roll-out world-class 5G networks, with innovative services across a range of sectors that will maximise socio-economic benefits to society.

Setting the right spectrum management policy has never been more vital. Making sufficient amounts of affordable spectrum available is central to expanding and upgrading mobile broadband services and unlocking new use cases. This is core to the success of 5G in India and elsewhere.

Spectrum auctions in India have a chequered history, in large part due to some of the highest spectrum prices in the world. This time, a second look at the reserve prices and broader reforms to the telecoms market led to a clear success.

All three incumbent operators (Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio, and Vodafone-Idea) secured core 5G spectrum in the 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz bands.  A new entrant Adani Group also participated, winning some 26 GHz spectrum in certain parts of the country. With this outcome 5G is now poised to play a vital role in fulfilling the Digital India vision, and to realise benefits of at least $455 billion over the next two decades.

The auction gives India’s mobile operators access to plenty of mid-band spectrum. Access to capacity in the 1-7 GHz range is a must for 5G to flourish. Mid-bands help power innovation in sectors such as healthcare and education, manufacturing, and public administration including smart cities.  Unleashing mid bands can also start a new wave of economic growth and industrial transformation.

While mid-band spectrum drives the most benefits, the successful mmWave auction also bodes well. mmWave spectrum is essential for the deployment of high-capacity, low-latency 5G networks. It complements low and mid-band spectrum implementations in dense urban areas and provides fibre-like connectivity through 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) technologies.

In addition to the auction price, MNOs in India were also subject to a Spectrum Usage Charge (SUC) which must be paid to the government annually. This SUC was defined as a percentage of annual revenue based on their respective spectrum holdings. During telecom reforms introduced in Sep 2021, the government removed this SUC on MNOs and it reduced various other levies. This liberal and progressive package for the industry has helped improved the financial sustainability of the sector, allowing MNOs to invest more in spectrum and future network rollout.

How do MNOs build on the momentum created by the auction?

Successful spectrum licensing is an ongoing process based on long-term planning and roadmaps. As part of our work to provide government and industry with a clear picture of the requirements of 5G, the GSMA has analysed spectrum needs across low, mid- and high bands. The results detail what’s required by 2030. A vision that can be integrated into 5G spectrum roadmaps to help ensure timely availability of capacity to ensure that 5G can flourish.

Low, mid- and high bands’ distinct characteristics drive different spectrum needs:

  • While low band is constrained by physics, and demand always outstrips supply, adding the 600 MHz band to the portfolio of spectrum holdings will raise download speeds by 30-50% in rural areas.
  • 2 GHz of mid-band per market is required to provide city-wide capacity and meet the ITU’s requirements for IMT-2020. Without access to the 6 GHz band, this goal will be difficult to reach.
  • 5 GHz of high-band spectrum per market will deliver pioneering ultra-fast speeds and the lowest latencies in high-capacity mmWave hotspots.

An integral part of the process is the 2023 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23). WRC-23 will look at both mid-band and sub-1 GHz frequencies for mobile. As India gets ready for 5G, it can also help to drive support at WRC-23 for globally harmonised spectrum to safeguard the long-term future of 5G for all across this decade and beyond.