Airtel gears up for 5G roll-out this month; partners with Ericsson, Nokia

on Wednesday signed agreements with global telecom equipment majors Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung to commence the deployment of services across the country this month. The company is likely to start with Delhi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, and Pune. The launch could coincide with the Independence Day, sources indicated.

The announcement came just a couple of days after the much-awaited auction ended with the government fetching more than Rs 1.5 trillion.

Airtel had forked out Rs 43,084 crore for 19,868 MHz spectrum, including in the crucial 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz bands, while Reliance Jio was the top bidder with 24,740 MHz of airwaves at Rs 88,078 crore.

“We are delighted to announce that Airtel will commence the roll-out of services in August. The choice of multiple partners will enable Airtel to roll out 5G services spanning high speeds, low latency, and large data handling capabilities, which will enable a superior user experience and allow pursuit of new innovative use cases,” Gopal Vittal, managing director and CEO of Airtel, said about the multi-vendor contracts.

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  • Company ropes in three telecom gear makers to set up 5G networks

  • Samsung for the first time looks beyond partner Jio and signs with Bharti for two circles

  • Ericsson and Nokia retain their circles where they had deployed 4G too

  • Analysts estimate the 5G roll-out could cost about $10 billion

  • Govt has promised to allocate spectrum by August 10

This is the first time that Samsung, which has worked with only Reliance Jio so far to build 4G networks, has sought to go beyond its partner and work with other players. Sources said the South Korean telecom giant had won the Punjab and Kolkata circles, where the 4G network was built by Chinese company ZTE. Under the existing policy, the government has not permitted Chinese telecom gear makers to participate in the 5G roll-out.

Ericsson, an old partner of Bharti Airtel, has won 11 circles (Tamil Nadu and Chennai are considered one circle), retaining all of those where it had deployed 4G. These include Karnataka, which was with Huawei for 4G but was partly given to Ericsson later.

Nokia said the award of the contract accounted for a 45 per cent share of the Airtel network. This, based on estimates, translates into nine circles — the ones where Nokia had deployed 4G. While no details on the size of the order were divulged, analysts estimate that the total investment on building a pan-Indian 5G network with 3.5 GHz radio initially could cost $4 billion.

The complete roll-out could cost $10 billion.

With the Chinese out of the game (they accounted for 20 per cent of the 4G gear market), telecom firms have had to look for alternative vendors. In the case of Airtel, that was clearly Samsung. Telcos looked at deployment of open radio access networks with different partners, but sources in Airtel said that it was still work in progress.

Even Reliance Jio, which stuck only with Samsung for 4G, is now in talks with Ericsson and Nokia, apart from Samsung (it has done 5G trials with Samsung and Ericsson). Sources in the know said Jio was planning to offer 5G services in nine cities in the country by January, probably starting with Delhi and Mumbai later this year.

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