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Airtel becomes the first carrier in India to test a 5G network, is holding off the launch


Indian carrier Bharti Airtel trialed a live 5G network today, the test was conducted in the Hyderabad region using the 1.8 GHz band. The carrier spent the last year upgrading its network using Ericsson hardware manufactured in India. And now it can enable 5G with the push of a button.

But that would be a mistake, CEO Gopal Vittal believes. He insists that a true 5G experience is only possible after the government allocates mid-band spectrum (2.5-3.7 GHz) for the new networks.

That hasn’t happened yet, so the only option right now is for 4G and 5G networks to share spectrum (using Dynamic Spectrum Sharing). However, this would reduce the available capacity for 4G users while providing a sub-optimal 5G performance. The CEO thinks that marketing would the only reason to consider such a hobbled launch.

Once the necessary spectrum is available, Airtel believes its networks can deliver 10 times higher speeds while reducing latency 10 times. Users won’t even need to change their SIM cards to jump on the new network.

India was supposed to auction off several bands for 5G usage last year, but postponed due to the financial struggles of the industry. The plan now is to auction off bands for 5G usage (3.3-3.6 GHz) later this year, after an upcoming 4G auction scheduled for March 1.

Airtel reports that there are already 1 million 5G-capable devices on its network, all of which are stuck using 4G for now. The carrier’s CTO says that mass adoption of the new technology depends on the availability of 5G phones in the INR 10,000-15,000 range.

In December, rival Reliance Jio announced its plan to launch a 5G network in the second half of 2021.

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