India's cellcos inch toward 3G and test 4G

India's cellcos inch toward 3G and test 4G

Basharat Ashai
Telecom Asia

All of India's major private operators have launched 3G services over the past few months. At the end of March Reliance Communications had launched 3G in 18 cities, Aircel in 10 cities, TATA in nine circles, Bharti Airtel in 12 cities and Vodafone in two cities. 

Government-owned BSNL had a head start with 3G compared to the private operators. BSNL launched its 3G service in February 2009 while MTNL launched in December 2008 but has a presence in Delhi and Mumbai only. Maravedis estimates that India currently has 10 million 3G subscribers, or approximately 1.25% of the country's total wireless subscriber base. 

3G and BWA spectrum was auctioned in Q2 last year, and the 3G players have marched ahead with their rollouts while the BWA license holders are lagging behind. BWA license holders spent several months evaluating Wimax and TD-LTE technologies. 

After careful evaluation private operators like RIL, Bharti Airtel, Aircel, Tikona and Augere decided to deploy wireless broadband using TD-LTE. Bharti Airtel, RIL and Aircel are trialing TD-LTE. The latter two, as well as Augere, have plans to launch TD-LTE services by the end of the year.

Government-owned MTNL has yet to decide whether to deploy Wimax or TD-LTE. An MTNL spokesperson informed us its technology path should be finalized within the next three months. BSNL, on the other hand, does not seem keen to roll out LTE in the immediate future. It is the only Indian operator with major Wimax rollout plans and government support. BSNL has told the government that either it should be given additional grant of $536.5 million or it will have to scale down its rural project from 7,863 to 1,798 Wimax base stations. The operator blames its funding troubles on the high price it had to pay for its 3G and BWA spectrum.

Affordable devices

After spending months evaluating technologies competing technologies, BWA license holders in India now face another challenge when it comes to TD-LTE - the lack of availability of affordable devices. There is really no volume yet for TD-LTE devices, so no economies of scale to drive costs down.

A single mode Wimax USB dongle can be sold in volumes to operators for under $30. The LTE version is no more complex than a Wimax implementation - it is essentially the same technology operating in the same frequency band. There might be some slight incremental costs added for support of a 20-MHz channel, but fundamentally there is no legitimate reason why a single-mode LTE dongle should cost $100. 

Pages