India’s largest telecom company Reliance Jio on Monday announced the launch of its 5G services in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai by Diwali this year, with an aim to expand and cover the entire country by December 2023.
The company said it will launch its 5G services on a “standalone” 5G architecture, against the “non-standalone” approach that other operators are betting on. The disagreement between service providers on the network modes they are taking to roll out the next generation of mobile telephony also spotlights questions over the readiness of Indian consumers to move to 5G.
5G networks are deployed mainly on two modes: standalone and non-standalone. Both architectures have their advantages and disadvantages, and the path chosen by operators primarily reflects their view of the market for the new technology, and the consequent rollout strategy.
In the standalone mode, which Jio has chosen, the 5G network operates with dedicated equipment, and runs parallel to the existing 4G network, while in the non-standalone mode, the 5G network is supported by the 4G core infrastructure.
Given that the non-standalone networks are built on existing infrastructure, the initial cost and the time taken to roll out services through this track is significantly less than standalone networks. Jio has committed an investment of Rs 2 lakh crore for its standalone 5G network.
What are the key differentiators between standalone and non-standalone 5G networks?
The standalone mode provides access to full 5G capabilities and new network functionalities such as slicing that provides greater flexibility to operators to efficiently use their spectrum holdings.
Non-standalone networks are generally considered to be a stepping stone, and global precedent suggests operators that have launched non-standalone 5G networks eventually transition to standalone networks. The non-standalone mode, however, lets operators maximise the utilisation of their existing network infrastructure with relatively lower investment.
The biggest difference in the two architectures is the compatibility with existing device ecosystems. Most smartphones today have capability to connect to non-standalone 5G networks — which are essentially 5G airwaves transmitted through 4G networks — and will require software updates by their OEMs to be able to connect to standalone networks.
How is the 5G smartphone ecosystem in India shaped?
Share of 5G smartphones in India has been on a steady rise over the last two years. According to data sourced from analytics firm Counterpoint Research, 5G-enabled smartphones accounted for a paltry 3 per cent of overall smartphone shipments in India, which is expected to grow to 35 per cent by the end of 2022. Currently, smartphones in the mid-tier segment — costing between Rs 20,000 and Rs 30,000 — have the highest share of 5G smartphones at 39 per cent, followed by the budget segment where 34 per cent of all smartphones are 5G-enabled.
Until June 2022, Samsung had the highest share of 5G smartphones sold in the country with a market share of 24 per cent, followed by Vivo (13 per cent) and OnePlus (13 per cent). Reliance Jio also said on Monday that it was working with Google, which makes the Android operating system, to launch a budget 5G phone. “We are working with Google to develop ultra-affordable 5G smartphones for India,” Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani said.
What are the broad benefits of 5G for consumers?
5G could have benefits for consumers owing to the superior Internet speed and low latency it promises over 4G. At its peak, Internet speeds on 5G could touch 10 Gbps, compared to the 100 Mbps peak of 4G. Similarly, latency under 4G is between 10-100 ms (millisecond) whereas on 5G it is expected to be under 1 ms. Latency is the time it takes for a device to send packets of data and get a response. Shorter the latency, quicker the response.
According to a May 2019 report by Ericsson, a key player in the 5G equipment market, while it is a common belief that 5G might not deliver any near-term benefits for consumers, they expect 5G to offer a step change in network performance, relief from urban network congestion, and more home broadband choices as near-term benefits.
Further, it pointed out that while there were reservations back in 2010 during the onset of 4G about the technology’s actual benefits for consumers, today, a number of online activities — from streaming ultra high definition content to making video calls, especially propelled by the pandemic — that are possible on 4G, would have been near impossible on 3G speeds.
“Consumers expect to be able to stream videos seamlessly wherever they are, regardless of how many others are trying to do the same. Upgrading to 5G could bring rapid relief to consumers suffering from capacity constraints in their networks,” Ericsson’s report said.
Does the nature of the 5G network also determine use cases?
For most industrial use cases such as manufacturing, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, the speeds and latency levels offered by 5G telephony are the key selling propositions. These low latencies and high Internet speeds can only be made available through the standalone architecture.
Also, given the high investments that would have typically gone into standalone modes, operators would look at designing high-margin offerings for business customers on these networks. Comparatively, the early rollout timelines and low infrastructure costs would make non-standalone networks more attractive for smartphone users.
“It (non-standalone) is the most widely available ecosystem in the world, and as you know telecom is a game of ecosystems. In the US and South Korea, where both SA and NSA have been launched, the traffic on SA is less than 10 per cent of the total 5G traffic,” Gopal Vittal, Managing Director & Chief Executive Officer, Bharti Airtel, said earlier this month at the company’s quarterly earnings call.