Jio, Airtel, Vodafone Idea fight with global tech majors like Google, Facebook for rich 6Ghz band


It’s a battle over 6 GHz for broadband speeds like 5G. On one side are Indian telcos Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio Infocomm and Vodafone Idea (Vi). On the other are global tech majors Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Cisco, Qualcomm, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Broadcom.

The 6 GHz spectrum band can support internet speed of nearly 10 Gbps. Maximum mobile broadband speed in India is currently around 100 Mbps. Since 1 Gbps is 1,000 Mbps, the 6 GHz band can support up to 100 times faster internet speed.

In the US, non-telecom companies are allowed to operate in this band and offer services such as WiFi-6. If this is allowed in India, these tech companies can offer ultra high speed internet to potentially over a billion people. The complication in India, say telcos, is licencing. They argue that if 6 GHz is opened up for all comers, it won’t be a level playing field. Telcos will have to bear licence fees and spectrum usage charges as well as comply with security requirements, while tech majors won’t have such obligations and possess an “unfair” advantage.

India’s telecom sector, in the efforts of enabling policies including more quantum of the spectrum, is set to establish new benchmarks in the next-generation network deployments and service delivery.

The prize offered by 6 GHz is huge. A billion-plus customers accessing high speed internet, of whom 30 per cent will be upgrading to smart devices. Senior director at ratings firm Fitch, Nitin Soni estimates annual mobile broadband services revenue opportunity in India to exceed US$20 billion in the next 24-30 months (from US$11-12 billion now), factoring in a likely rise in tariff. The number will only go up.

And, for the likes of Facebook and Google, the more the people on mobile internet, the wider their target revenue base. In a recent joint submission, the eight tech companies urged the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) to start a consultation process on delicensing the 6 GHz band in India expeditiously.

Licence-exempt use

Global momentum is building behind opening the band, and this spectrum is uniquely suited for expansion of the WiFi-6 technology in India, they said.

“…Opening up the full 6 GHz band for licence-exempt use would have tremendous economic benefits for (fast) broadband connectivity in India, as it supports popular 5G use cases such as high definition video streaming, WiFi calling, smart home devices, hotspot access, automation of citywide services, AR/VR applications, health monitoring devices, wearables and seamless roaming,” they said in the submission.

Telcos are ready with their own pitch. “The 6 GHz spectrum must only be made available to licensed telecom service providers as it has emerged as an alternate, mid-band candidate for 5G, other than the 3.5 GHz band, which is essential to offer a real 5G mobile broadband experience,” director general, Cellular Operators Association of India, SP Kochhar told ET. The association represents Airtel, Jio and Vi.

He added that telcos must be given precedence for any 5G spectrum, as non-licensed entities have not used a majority of the 650 MHz of airwaves already with them.

Auctions ahead

The latest face-off comes as the government has scheduled a 4G auction in March, with the likelihood of a 5G airwaves sale later next year. At present, telcos use some 6 GHz spectrum for backhaul — or connecting towers. The Department of Space also uses the band.

Partner and head (India & Middle East), Analysys Mason, Rohan Dhamija said: “It appears that these global tech companies want the 6 GHz band delicensed to gain control of the connectivity layer in the telecom value chain, and potentially cannibalise the hugely lucrative dense urban focus segment of mobile broadband services in the future.”

During the recent India Mobile Congress-2020, Facebook had made a strong pitch for the availability of unlicensed spectrum to ring in new tech such as WiFi-6. “We believe additional spectrum for both WiFi and 5G is important for a better connectivity experience,” a Facebook spokesperson told ET.

The spokesperson though added that Facebook does not intend to become an Internet Service Provider but would want to work in partnership with operators.

Jio, Airtel, Vi and Google declined to comment.

President of Broadband India Forum, backed the US tech companies, TV Ramachandran saying, “The government must open up the 6 GHz band, particularly for the use of WiFi-6 technology that can complement 5G and help in providing high-speed and high-capacity broadband services to rural areas.” The forum represents the likes of Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Qualcomm.

Tech companies and telcos are already engaged in a battle to access two more spectrum bands, E and V, which the telcos consider ideal for offering 5G. The tech companies want these delicensed. But telcos want the E and V bands auctioned, as they can use it to link mobile towers in the absence of fibre connectivity.

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