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Why 4G is still a dream in India

Rajeev Shenoy, a Bangalore-based techie (not his real name), splurged nearly Rs46K on his sleek iPhone 5 to experience 4G on-the-go. But his thrill turned to bitterness when he found out his fancy smartphone won't run on fourth generation networks in India.

The reason: Apple's new smartphone does not support the TDD or 'time division duplex' version of LTE technology that powers 4G networks in India, but runs on its older and more globally trusted variant, FDD or 'frequency duplex division', deployed by most 4G operators in the US and Europe. As a result, the iPhone 5 supports LTE or 'long term evolution' technology only on the 1.8 GHz band and not on the 2300 MHz band frequencies auctioned in India two years ago.

Varsha Saxena, a graphic artist in Kolkata (again not her real name), suffered a similar fate with her iPad 3 tablet, which supports LTE only on the super efficient 700 MHz band that won't be available in India for at least another two years. Rajeev and Varsha are on Rs 1999 LTE data plans from Bharti Airtel, the country's leading mobile carrier and sole LTE operator yet.

Far from being stray cases, they represent the first wave of data-hungry customers who signed up for 4G thrills like video conferencing, interactive gaming, streaming HD movies to making video calls on the move. But, instead, they learnt the hard way that "true bang for the LTE buck" remains a pipedream in a country where 4G services arrived seven months ago.

To be precise, LTE is only nearly 4G. True 4G will arrive only with LTE Advanced. But LTE itself brings with it enormous benefits. It has high spectral efficiency and low latency. It offers lower costs for every megabyte transmitted, high throughput and backward compatibility with existing CDMA technologies. Operators can provide voice-over LTE as well, but the one of the best advantages is in operational efficiency.

Small-cell LTE is nearly-impossible to manage without self-organising networks, which improves operational efficiency. But the march to this ideal state is long and with several hurdles on the way. All buzz about 4G data speeds being at least five times faster than 3G hasn't really translated into mass LTE adoption levels in India. 4G subscriber growth has failed to happen accentuated by a near non-existent devices ecosystem.

LTE has mind-boggling opportunities but it faces substantial hurdles now, like absence of compatible 4G handsets, pricey data plans, expensive dongles and customer premise equipment -- both priced over $92 (Rs 4,999). Paucity of 4G-centric applications, content and services coupled with limited coverage haven't helped either. Another turn-off undermining 4G experience, claim the users, is the drastic speed rollback from a normal 40 Mbps to a paltry 128 kbps once a customer exhausts his monthly quota of free gigabytes.

The company's president (consumer business) K Srinivas is quick to stress that it "takes several years for a new mobile broadband technology like TDD-LTE to mature just like 3G took years to gain traction in western markets," but concedes Airtel's fledgling 4G operation won't gain momentum unless it launches LTE in Mumbai and Delhi where it acquired Qualcomm's wireless broadband permits earlier this year.

Right now, it offers 4G services only in Bangalore, Kolkata and Pune. "Mumbai and Delhi are the two largest data markets and our network teams are working furiously to roll out 4G in both cities at the earliest," says Srinivas declining to reveal potential launch timelines.

The company, along with China's Huawei, is also conducting trials of the Huawei-Ascend P1 LTE smartphone, the first TD-LTE-compatible 4G handset in India. However, it is yet to take a call on its pricing. Apple refused to comment on the feature.

"I don't expect 4G to see any meaningful traction unless Airtel launches the service in high-value markets like Mumbai and Delhi, and more important, till Reliance-owned Infotel Broadband launches," says consultancy Ovum's principal telecoms analyst (emerging markets), Shiv Putcha.

Infotel Broadband is the only firm with a pan-India broadband wireless access permit, which allows it to offer high-speed data services on mobile devices. Small wonder, most analysts believe the new telecom policy 2012 (aka NTP 2012) paves the way for Infotel to eventually offer voice services (read: VoIP) over data networks, which they claim, can be a proverbial gamechanger for LTE adoption.

"Infotel Broadband could disrupt established telecom businesses if it can offer cheap VoIP and data services over converged, smart devices," says Putcha adding that "voice could well be the sweetner in an LTE scenario since there "are no successful cases of data-only telecom businesses worldwide".

Analysts at Forrester agree Reliance's 4G service could be a potential gamechanger but say VoIP won't play a huge part. "Infotel can transform India's LTE space but not due to VoIP. Apart from some advances by South Korea, 'VoIP over 4G' is still at a nascent stage globally and call quality remains poor," says Katyayan Gupta, analyst & connectivity lead (Asia-Pacific & Japan) at Forrester.

Gupta believes Reliance's comparative 4G edge lies in the ability to build better economies of scale by offering a pan-India service, attracting more customers by offering nationwide 4G roaming - since NTP 2012 has abolished roaming -- and even subsidising 4G devices like CPEs and dongles by leveraging scale.

Industry experts aware of developments claim Reliance has approached the telecom department to conduct VoIP trials on its TDD-LTE network in the run up to launching 4G services in Mumbai and Delhi, but Reliance did not reply to ET's specific queries. The company is also tight-lipped on the launch of its 4G services originally expected in June.

Former VSNL chairman BK Syngal, who is now senior principal at Dua Consulting, says Reliance-controlled Infotel Broadband may not be able to immediately offer VoIP services on a 4G data network. "Reliance only has an ISP licence which allowed it to acquire BWA airwaves to provide data services nationally.

He also believes it is early days for TDD-LTE tech since the device ecosystem on this platform trails the more evolved FDD version and mass adoption in India could be nearlythree years away.

Ovum's Putcha and Forrester's Gupta believe mass TDD-LTE adoption may not take that long given the surge in global industry support for this version. "Network vendors may be more focused on FDD now but chipset vendors are rapidly developing dual-mode chips that support both TDD and FDD variants of LTE," says Gupta adding that TDD shares most of the FDD designs and standards and uses a common core network, which is why, the world's top network gear vendors like Nokia Siemens Network and Huawei to chipset vendors like Qualcomm, Samsung and Broadcom are supporting the TDD-LTE platform.

Bharti Airtel's Srinivas seconds this claiming over 100 global telecom carriers are currently at various stages of deploying TDD-LTE, even though the total number of 4G operators backing FDD worldwide exceeds 400. In fact, the seeds of the LTE ecosystem were sown when Airtel teamed up with some of the biggest TDD-LTE backers like Japan's Softbank Mobile and China Mobile at the 2011 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to launch the Global TD-LTE Initiative (GTI).

User number potential are not insignificant either. Ovum expects India to have 37 million TDD-LTE subscribers by 2017 while Forrester pegs it at nearly 50 million by 2018.

Spectrum availability remains a concern though. Airtel's Srinivas declines to confirm whether the firm would put all LTE expansions on hold till the government auctions airwaves in the 700 MHz band considered thrice more efficient than the 2300 MHz frequencies auctioned in 2010. Forrester's Gupta feels stalling expansion or rollout plans may be a dumb thing to do since Airtel "cannot sit on licensed spectrum for too long as it would be unwise not to lock customers before Reliance launches."

Most stakeholders also believe an evolved TD-LTE ecosystem opens up efficient multi-network management scenarios, in that, it can be an enabler of 'self-organising networks' or SONs.

"Self-organising networks are likely to be a hit with telcos in India, especially since many domestic carriers may soon be managing multiple technology networks in the forseeable future," says Gupta of Forrester.

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