Despite winning airwaves at this month’s spectrum auction, Vi’s ability to compete in the realm of 5G remains uncertain

This week, India’s two largest mobile operators, Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel, have announced that they are aiming to forge ahead with commercial 5G launches later this month, though it is still unclear who will achieve the coveted first launch.

According to Reliance Jio Chairman, Akash Ambani, the operator is aiming to launch the company’s pan-Indian 5G service on August 15, celebrating ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’, the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence Day. 

"Jio is committed to offering world-class, affordable 5G and 5G-enabled services. We will provide services, platforms and solutions that will accelerate India’s digital revolution, especially in crucial sectors like education, healthcare, agriculture, manufacturing and e-governance," said Ambani. 

"Jio is fully ready for 5G rollout in the shortest period of time because of its nationwide fibre presence, all-IP network with no legacy infrastructure, indigenous 5G stack and strong global partnerships across the technology ecosystem," the company added in a statement. 

In a report earlier this week, Jio said it has already completed its 5G coverage plan for 1,000 cities, as well as further trialling its homegrown 5G technology.

"Jio’s 5G coverage planning has been completed in top 1,000 cities based on targeted consumer consumption and revenue potential using heat maps, 3D maps, and ray-tracing technology,” said the company in a report released this week. 

Airtel, meanwhile, has yet to set a specific date for their 5G launch, though it did outline its long-term strategy for rolling out the technology, seeking to cover all urban areas and key rural areas by March 2024.

"We intend to launch 5G starting August and extend to a pan-India roll out very soon. By March 2024 we believe we will be able to cover every town and key rural areas as well with 5G,” explained Airtel CEO Gopal Vittal. "In fact, detailed network rollout plans for 5,000 towns in India are completely in place. This will be one of the biggest rollouts in our history."

Both Jio and Airtel have recently announced their chosen vendor partners for their 5G networks: Airtel has signed agreements with Nokia, Ericsson, and Samsung, while Jio has introduced Ericsson alongside its existing partnership with Samsung.

The 5G launches follow the conclusion of India’s long-awaited 5G spectrum auction earlier this month, which raised around $19 billion. 

Jio took home the lion’s share of the spectrum, spending $11.15 billion in a broad range of frequency bands, while Airtel spent just $5.45 billion, focussing primarily on the 3.3GHz and 26GHz bands. 

The auction also included a somewhat surprise participant in the form of billionaire Gautam Adani’s Adani Group, which operators feared could be seeking a to purchase a meaningful chunk of spectrum as a springboard to enter the mobile market more directly, potentially by buying a stake in one of the nation’s smaller operators. 

These fears appear largely unfounded, however, with the Group spending just $26.84 million on spectrum, which they reportedly plan to use to offer private 5G to enterprises.  

But what then of India’s third-place mobile player, Vodafone Idea (Vi)?

Vi purchased $2.37 billion-worth of spectrum but has remained ominously quiet regarding a potential launch date for its commercial 5G network. 

In fact, analysts suggest that the company’s cash flow woes could mean that the operator is unable to rollout the infrastructure as rapidly as hoped. 

“We think Vi’s 5G rollouts would remain constrained in the near term,” explained Japanese brokerage firm Nomura in its report, citing cash flow issues, upcoming debt repayments, and delays in external fund raising as key issues. “Impending 5G rollouts by peers could lead to accelerated market share losses for Vi.”

With Vi already struggling to hold its own again Jio and Airtel in the existing 4G landscape, a delayed 5G rollout that lacks scale could make the advent of Indian 5G a case of one step forward, two steps back for the beleaguered operator.   

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