When I attended The Economic Times (ET) Telecom 5G Congress in 2023, the GSMA Intelligence team had begun talking about 5G’s second wave.

Globally, 5G connections had just surpassed the 1 billion mark. Meanwhile, in India, the world’s most populous country, 5G was still very much in its infancy. Following the first launches in October 2022, it ended Q1 2023 with just under 30 million 5G connections.

A year later, the success of 5G in India is well-documented. Getting a closer view of the progress and the way in which key stakeholders are planning for what’s next was my goal for a return visit to the event.

Update on the here and now
Held earlier this month, the ET Telecom 5G | 6G Congress brought together players from across the Indian mobile ecosystem including sponsors Ericsson; Ciena; Ribbon Communications; MediaTek and EY, alongside speakers from Airtel; Reliance Jio; Vodafone Idea; Samsung, Oppo; TRAI and others to provide a view into the state of the market and the developments that would drive it forward.

While 6G was added to the event’s title for 2024, impressive 5G momentum over the last year ensured many speakers would focus on the market’s 5G accomplishments. And, indeed, many of the early presentations did just that, delivering a 5G snapshot circa early 2024, including: 140 million 5G subscribers; 420,000 5G base stations as of January; more than 8 per cent of traffic on 5G a year following commercial service launches; and 20 per cent of 5G traffic being generated from FWA today, highlighting latent demand for fixed broadband.

Beyond a mere market update, though, there was a clear sense of pride in what had been achieved. From the speed at which networks had been rolled out to the quality of the services being delivered, 5G discussions exuded national pride, mirroring messaging from MWC Barcelona 2024 where Jio talked about carrying more traffic than all US operators combined and claiming a leading global position in deployment of standalone 5G.

Near-term planning
With 5G maturing quickly in India, it is natural for the ecosystem to look for new ways in which the technology could be put to use or otherwise monetised. Many speakers did just that, with two topics getting plenty of attention.

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI). Putting aside the fact AI currently dominates most technology discussions, its role in optimising 5G network operations and service delivery could be massive. Add in the fact India’s software industry sees a role for itself in the development of AI and the focus is logical.
  • Devices. While 5G devices are widely available, driving the market in new directions may require new types: industrial devices to support new vertical use cases, low-cost Redcap devices to support IoT scale and diverse FWA form-factors to meet differing demands. To be sure, these same demands apply in many markets. But, with an eye towards the development of its manufacturing (and chipset) industry, device development takes on an elevated importance.

Despite the opportunities for scaling 5G in India, business realities and pragmatism demanded a discussion of challenges to be solved as well. Some of those cited are common to 5G operators around the world: in-building coverage requirements, the difficulty of building momentum in enterprise verticals and the capital intensity of 5G network builds. Others are particularly critical in India, such as rural coverage in a market where two-thirds of the population lives outside urban areas.

Long-term planning
In our MWC 2024 wrap-up we noted 6G was somewhat missing from mainstream conversations dominating the show and this was for the best, given nearer-term priorities for the industry. With ET Telecom’s event evolving from the 5G Congress in 2023 to the 5G | 6G Congress in 2024, it was clear 6G would factor into the event’s agenda for better or worse.

To be sure, 6G is a priority for the Indian government which wants a larger role for India in mobile network standard setting than it enjoyed with 4G or 5G. And, where every network generation shift is an occasion for market disruption, we heard plenty of ways in which ecosystem players envisioned India bringing 6G to life: technology and standards development (in line with government aspirations), 6G use case exploration and development and alignment of India’s software development industry with a 6G-focus on software versus hardware.

These same players, however, also highlighted reasons to be cautious around moving too fast on 6G. Here, the focus was on business versus technology issues, recognising that 5G investments have yet to be fully monetised and 6G will likely require massive new investments, the business case for which is still uncertain. Against this backdrop, the case for 5G evolutions, including 5G-Advanced, with a focus on monetising existing investments and network foundations seems evident. While we will be one year closer to 6G’s arrival, I hope to see the 2025 Congress focus on those 5G-Advanced innovations and monetisation stories, building on the incredible 5G work done so far in India.

– Peter Jarich – Head, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.