What is 5G and how is going to be different in India?

Every smartphone brand is talking 5G, but do you need it?

Whether it arrives in India or not, 5G is the buzzword at every smartphone event that has been taking place since the second half of 2019.

And we are sure it will continue to be a hot topic through 2020 as well. So let’s take a closer look at what this “5G” is all about and you could later decide on whether or not you should be bothered about it altogether!

What is 5G?

5G (aka 5G NR, or New Radio) is the new and upgraded wireless communication standard that the industry has chosen to continue ahead as the future pipeline for data communication. When we started off with cellular networks and wireless calling, it started with 2G, which was fast enough to place two-way calls and transfer tiny bits of data. The next upgrade was 3G, which was a big leap from a theoretical speed of 14Kbps to around 3Mbps -- good enough to browse websites, run apps and services on that brand new iPhone 3G (that still did not feature copy/paste), and place some fancy 1-on-1 video calls as well. Soon enough came 3.5G or HSPA, which bumped up the speeds to a good 14Mbps. But that still wasn't enough for us humans -- we wanted more as our lives started centering around cell phones.

Enter 4G, which basically lets operators get you data speeds between 100Mbps to 300Mbps and is good enough to leave aside your wired broadband connection, especially in developing countries like India. Of course, just like 3G, 4G too never worked as expected. No operator in the country ever came close to 100Mbps speeds (most topping out at 15-50Mbps).

And now we have 5G shining down upon us with theoretical promises of whopping 10 to 30Gbps. Yes! That’s gigabits in a second. But unlike when 3G was a big bump in speeds from 2G, this time around there’s plenty more that can be done with all of that blazing fast connectivity in 2020 and beyond.

OK! Dumb it down for me please!

Let’s just assume that our current telecom network is a regular water pipe that reaches your floor, and then your home. There was enough water pressure coming through for a while, until your neighbours moved in on the same floor. Now there are more families sharing the same pipeline on the floor and the flow/pressure of water seems lower than before. Your shower that was more of a rainfall before, is now like the water pouring into glass from your water-purifier, which is not really fast. That’s the exact scene with 4G.

So how can 5G solve this problem? 5G basically changes the entire game ahead. It opens up a lot of extra bandwidth by adding a chunk of other unused radio frequencies. It’s like giving you a huge, dedicated pipeline straight from the overhead tank right into your home, without sharing any of it with your neighbours. With 5G, now everyone on the same network can use everything at full speed, without complaining.

But 5G does not come without variants. It brings along NSA and SA for the sake of cost reduction and existing equipment compatibility.

WTF is NSA and SA?

NSA (Non-Standalone Access 5G) gets you “somewhat 5G”, while SA (Standalone Access 5G) gets you “pure 5G”. NSA basically uses 5G towers and equipment but is built upon the existing 4G core base. This gets you “better” speeds and “improved” reliability but is not true 5G through and through. On the other hand, SA runs with 5G towers and equipment but works entirely on a 5G core, which makes it blazing fast and extremely reliable – a pure 5G network system.

Popular operators in the US have opted for a mix of both Sub-6 (NSA) and mmWave (SA) networks. So users out there will have patches (certain areas) where they get extremely high (fibre-like) data speeds, while other patches deliver higher than 4G speeds. So folks out there can still experience proper 5G. Operators in South Korea have opted for a complete revamp, and hence, 5G smartphone users out there will be experiencing mmWave networks, which is the real deal.

Countries such as India and the UK have opted for just NSA, or the Sub-6 GHz, so speeds will be faster than the current 4G. However, don’t expect fibre-like gigabit speeds that you get from a mmWave network.

Will 5G be available everywhere?

This entirely depends on telecom operators and the spectrum (or radio frequency range) that they acquire. 5G should be available everywhere in India, but it will go the Sub-6 way. Though it’s not bad at all, it isn’t the best either. The good news, however, is that it should be available everywhere because it will work right off the existing 4G equipment in the country.

Is 5G available in India right now?

No, but several operators were supposed to start testing 5G networks using 5G radio equipment starting June 2019. As with everything in India, things have been delayed and you could blame it on the COVID-19 pandemic to delay things even further. Last we heard, Airtel, Vodafone and Jio had their application for 5G trials. And operators have been picky with Airtel and Vodafone going with 5G technology from Huawei, Ericsson, ZTE and Nokia, while Jio picked Samsung as their weapon of choice.

When could we expect 5G in India?

It’s really difficult to comment as yet, since the 5G spectrum auctions are yet to be executed. The auctions were planned around April 2020 but have been delayed till October due to financial difficulties and the ongoing pandemic. Once that’s done, everyone with the right 5G equipment can deploy 5G speeds to everyone. 5G trials have already begun, but it needs a network equipment upgrade. And currently, the only telecom operator who is already prepared with an IP-only network is the last one to step into the game -- Reliance Jio.

India is a bit late to the party as global 5G testing has already been completed and is ready to be deployed. It will be a while until 5G rolls out to India… think 2022 at least. Thanks to the hefty dues telecom companies owe to the government.

How expensive is 5G gonna be?

Rupees Fifty Thousand Crore! Yes, you read that right. It’s ₹50,000 crore – the price your telecom operator, be it Vodafone (Idea), Bharti Airtel or Jio, will have to shell out to get their hands on some 5G-friendly radio spectrum. But for now, it depends on “when” the government decides on executing the 5G spectrum auctions. And that again is just the base price, and it is also the highest base price when compared to any other country in the world. And, also expect to hear some earth-shattering figures once the auctions begin.

And remember -- some telecom companies still have to cough up the AGR dues, which is pretty much amounting to that same base price value. Oh and TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India), the authority that decides on those price tags, is not showing signs of budging from its starting base price! In short, that price will trickle down to the shoulders of its consumers, and it won't come in as cheap as we did see for 4G. So yes! The 5G future for India (coronavirus or not) seems a bit bleak. Probably, Reliance Jio holds the key to the 5G game in India.

But things could also change, simply because operators will need to bring down prices for consumers to latch on to. And if that does not happen, all that moolah invested in setting up 5G networks will head down the drain. Yes – Indian consumers are picky and choosy when it comes to price.

Is 5G only for my smartphones?

No. Not really. The applications of 5G connectivity are immense and at a global scale. Because the latency (or response time, calculated in milliseconds) with 5G is so low (lower is behter) compared to 3.5G and 4G, it makes the option really useful. Not just for streaming YouTube memes of Ghana’s dancing pallbearers (coffin dancers), but also for applications in other areas such as self-driving cars, medical and industrial sectors that cannot afford network delays and buffering issues. In short, 5G’s capabilities well exceed what we have come to expect and demand from a smartphone.

Will my current phone support 5G?

No. You will have to upgrade to a new smartphone to take advantage of 5G speeds that your operator provides – if at all your operator provides it to you.

So the question you should be asking for now is “Do I need 5G speeds or is my 4G phone good enough for me”?

Should I invest in a 5G smartphone right now?

Yes. You  could. And why not? All you have to do is check whether your smartphone’s radio supports both SA and NSA networks. And since they are officially launching in India, they rightfully should.

Affordable 5G smartphones

There is, however, the price factor. 5G won’t be here, or be entirely functional for another two years at the least. So if you can’t wait for a mid-range 5G smartphone to arrive, don’t wait for it. As most folks investing in a mid-range device will upgrade in a year or two when something better comes out. And when it does, it will support 5G. For those who can afford it, you should buy one as it will work with the new 5G networks when they go live in a year (or two) from now. And you will not need an upgrade when that happens.

Premium 5G smartphones

As for premium phones, they will, in all probability, have 5G support/chips inside already, even though a few brands have strayed away from 5G offerings this year. Samsung’s entire Galaxy S20 range launched in India does not support 5G. It’s probably to keep the costs low, as 5G does bump up the price tag, and this was clearly seen with OnePlus’ 2020 offerings. By the time 5G arrives here, and is fully functional, you will in all probability upgrade your smartphone once again. But if you have already invested in one, you won’t need to.

So, as you can tell, 5G is rather interesting and it will offer a faster and reliable communication. It will allow you to do more not just with your smartphone, but also with your smartwatch, connected laptop and every other IoT device that will be able to connect to a 5G network directly. But whether or not you will latch on to it depends entirely on the 5G auction ahead, the operators’ pockets, and how it’s finally deployed.

Want to know more about 5G? Click on the links below:

Should you buy a 5G smartphone today?

Premium 5G smartphones in India