5G is finally coming to India next month. Soon after the four-day Indian Mobile Congress event ends on 4 October, Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, and Vodafone are expected to roll out 5G services, which will provide faster mobile connectivity to consumers of compatible devices. The speed of these networks is expected to be 10 to 15 times higher than the current 4G services. But fundamentally, there are two types of 5G networks — mmWave, which promises the 10x speed bump with its ultra-high bandwidth; and sub-6GHz 5G, which is what most people will experience after the rollout.
The infrastructure for 5G will be non-standalone, meaning it will be built on top of the existing 4G networks, making it cost-effective and allowing network operators to scale up the infrastructure to standalone as the 5G market expands. Also, non-standalone infrastructure is ideal for sub-6GHz 5G, and a non-standalone network with mmWave will need many more cell towers for coverage.
In India, Airtel and Vodafone networks will use non-standalone infrastructure but Reliance Jio will be a more sophisticated standalone network. Overall, one shouldn’t expect a dramatic change in the cost of their mobile internet plan if they upgrade from 4G to 5G. Even though Reliance would’ve had more capital expenditure, it will be aggressive with pricing to capture market share as it did while launching 4G.
If one looks at the spectrum that has been allotted to Airtel, Jio, Vodafone and Adani, then the widest assortment of it is for sub-6GHz 5G, even though the quantum of allotment of 26 GHz is higher for overall bandwidth purposes. The allocation of the spectrum network operator-wise is as follows:
Airtel: 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100MHz, 3300 MHz and 26 GHz
Vodafone Idea: 3300 MHz and 26 GHz
Reliance Jio: 700MHz, 800MHz, 1800MHz, 3300MHz and 26GHz
Adani Data Networks: 400 MHz and 26 GHz
All the spectrum that is below 6 GHz is what is known as sub-6GHz 5G, which is what we will see when 5G networks are activated, especially while using our smartphones. The network operators haven’t rolled out their plans so far but if one compares what speeds we can expect, then in the US T-Mobile markets sub-6GHz 5G network will have the speed of around 300 mbps which is the speed of a high-speed fibre line.
Airtel claims its 4G advanced network has a peak speed of 135 mbps, but effectively it is around half because there are multiple factors like network congestion, device type, and your location — so at best one can expect the speed of 5G networks to be 2 to 3 times of what one experiences on 4G. 4K content will be a breeze to stream on your phone, data transfers will become almost instantaneous. In simpler terms, your mobile internet will feel like a high-speed broadband connection.
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Why Sub-6Hz 5G?
Apart from the cost benefit, there is another reason sub-6GHz 5G is better for most consumers. Range. Sub-6GHz 5G networks use the same cellular towers and provide a combination of range and the spectrum can penetrate through concrete walls more easily to provide better signal stability in indoor situations. This will also be better for the battery life of your phone.
mmWave networks will be 10-15 times faster but they have a short wavelength. They represent frequencies between 24GHz and 100GHz. In the US, an mmWave antenna can provide connection range at most for a block, which is around 80 metres if one accounts for buildings in an area, but can scale to a maximum of a kilometre. Even in this space, one needs a direct line of sight with the antenna as building materials like concrete and brick attenuate and reflect high-frequency signals. When the frequencies go beyond 28GHz, the signal is impacted even by air, wood, and glass.
In India, particularly in the metropolitan cities where 5G will be rolled out first — houses are made from concrete and bricks, besides buildings. In the US, at least many homes especially in suburban areas are made from wood so mmWave has some semblance of viability.
That’s why even though Adani Data Networks has acquired spectrum, it is highly unlikely it will end up becoming a mobile network operator. Its focus is on mmWave which will have huge relevance in industrial use cases. For example, Adani has taken over six airports — Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Mangaluru, Jaipur, Guwahati, and Thiruvananthapuram — here it can use its mmWave spectrum to deploy a high-speed network that is congestion free.
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5G bands to look out for on smartphones
If one looks at most smartphones that support 5G in India, n78/n77 bands are pervasive as they support frequencies up to 3300 MHz. Airtel, Jio and Vodafone all have opted for this band, while Adani has not opted for this frequency. 3300 MHz will be used for high-speed 5G.
Contrastingly, the 700 MHz, 800 MHz and 900 MHz bands will be used to extend the range of the 5G network as these bands were already in use for 4G. Airtel and Jio have taken in more spectrum for the lower frequencies to augment their 5G networks. Vodafone didn’t feel the need to do it while Adani will not be building a B2C mobile network, so it didn’t need the spectrum.
The n28, n5 and n8 bands are needed for these low-end frequencies and most smartphones with 5G support, especially the ones launched in 2022, support these bands. In a nutshell for 5G, users should check if their phones have the n77/n78/n5/n8/n28 bands.
Sahil Mohan Gupta is a technology journalist based out of New Delhi. He tweets at @digitallybones. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)