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Why 5G rollouts for Airtel and Jio are different

Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio are using different approaches to 5G deployments because of their respective legacies and getting disparate results, according to Sylwia Kechiche, principal industry analyst at Ookla. Although the peak speed on Jio’s networks is the highest, there is more consistent improvement across Airtel’s, according to the latest study by the global speed testing company.

When it comes to data usage there appears to be an evident sharp churn out of the Vodafone Idea network, leaving India more or less to the two chief players. While BSNL says it is launching 5G, Kechiche believes catching up with the innovation train of the two leaders will be challenging.

There are three key factors that are affecting the quality and usage of the 5G experience on both Airtel’s and Jio’s networks: the reason for deployment, the spectrum on which it is done, and the device availability on the network.

Deployment type
Jio is deploying 5G in pockets isolated from its existing network. The service is available on an invite-only basis for the time being, which means that the company is limiting the number of users that sign up. Inherently, it also means a better user experience.

“So, for instance, for Jio consumers, even though the phone might be compatible with 5G standalone, you still need to do a software upgrade because it doesn’t automatically latch on to the network,” Kechiche said. In most cases, a switch to the 5G network would depend on a different SIM card.

Airtel, on the other hand, has deployed a non-standalone network, which means it is still anchored to the LTE network. Therefore, “it’s still an LTE network with some of the 5G radio,” she said. The end experience will be closer to LTE, or 4.5G, than the high bandwidth of 5G technology. That said, the subscriber need not do anything, and a 5G-enabled phone will automatically switch to the technology. For Airtel, this is also a technology to decongest its mobile network. Unlike Jio, Airtel depends on wireless for backhaul, while Jio relies on a deeper network of fiber-optic cables.

The difference is seen in the median speeds achieved on the network. “The reason we see Jio speeds being better is because of the backhaul infrastructure, which plays a really important role,” said Kechiche. Airtel would be able to offload traffic from 4G onto 5G about 25 to 30% of the time as a result of its deployment.

The speed of the 5G network also varies due to the spectrum being used by companies. In the 700 MHz band, which was most recently bought by Jio, the overall speed delivered is capped around 100 Mbps, according to Ookla.

In August 2022 Reliance Jio bought a 700Mhz spectrum worth Rs 88,078 crore, which is over double the value of bids placed by Airtel. The propagation of the network on the 700 MHz band is more far-reaching, reducing the need for infrastructure over large expanses. In the higher frequency bands, the speeds are much higher. The technologists suggest that the high capacity of 5G lends itself to lower infrastructure even at a high frequency, but that has yet to be tried out.

Jio would potentially hope that as the technology evolves, a means to increase capacity on the 700 MHz band will also emerge. However, it does not hinder the pockets of isolated deployments that it is running.

The final difference in speeds is based on the outcome of the device ecosystem on the network. Jio sports the cream and the mass devices, while the mix on Airtel’s network is more homogenous, according to Kechiche’s research.

Nearly 27% of devices on Jio’s network are Apple devices, making them ready to leverage the best of 5G. However, the remaining users tend to use mass-market, low-end devices, representing high volume but lower consumption. “Jio was very heavily targeting rural areas on the first,” she said.

While local manufacturers are beginning to produce low-cost 5G enabled handsets, their performance is yet to match the leading global counterparts. This in turn will impact the speed that mass users will experience.

Airtel continues to hold the middle segment of users that are now venturing into the metaverse and gaming, which could prove a virtuous cycle for its offerings. Bloomberg

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