Bharti Airtel said that it is open to newer partners to develop innovative use cases around its 5G service, adding that it is already in talks with its existing clients to discuss 5G-led offerings. In an interview with ET’s Danish Khan, Randeep Sekhon, Chief Technology Officer of the Sunil Mittal-led telco talks about 5G roll out, smartphone price points, OpenRAN and more. Edited Excerpts:
How ready Airtel is to enable 5G use cases for enterprises in India?
Use cases for enterprise use cases for the public are higher speed and the use cases for public which you could see later could be cloud gaming and some immersive entertainment which will bring in the need of Edge. But when we come to enterprises, the use cases are curated to the industry, whether it is manufacturing, logistics, mining et al. We have been on trial almost somewhere even 12 months earlier. We have a partner ecosystem across areas like agriculture, healthcare, and manufacturing. And, we are also open to newer partners who can bring in a disruptive way. So, yes, I agree we will have to kind of develop with partners. We already have some which are commercially announced like Bosch and Nokia but some of them are not yet commercially announced.
Is NSA sufficient to enable those industrial use cases?
Depends upon what the use case now industry is wanting to do. Airtel is SA ready and have the capability today but that SA is only for enterprises which need SA-specfic use case and that can be done through slicing and ultra low latency. Ultra low latency is typically required for controlling high-precision robots in specific condition properly controlling a boom of remote crane or controlling some very precision robot robot you know very precision robot where the moment little bit here moment can be like disaster rescue everything working on public WiFi public sorry public 5g But if today enterprise tells me that I want a say based network I’m ready to give.
We have SA core commercially deployed along with SA radios. But, we are not putting it up for regular users because this is not yet a ubiquitously mature technology. We will use it fully when the ecosystem matures.
Do you think that Fixed Wireless Access will give a push to the fixed broadband penetration in the country and help cover uncovered areas?
Yes, completely agree. The spectrum which was purchased in millimetre waves will be a goldmine for this business. We are working with partners on the ODCP part because that will be the most important element in this. You will have to put a CPE in the customer premise, run a wire down and that wire will then generate a Wi Fi network in the customer’s house.
How soon will you be ready to launch the service?
We are ready today but we have to make it ready at an economical level, which also is a chicken and egg situation. It depends on how many use cases you’re building on top of it. We are very close to cracking a price point which will start making sense for everyone. But I think once that is there will go mass..
For mass adoption of 5G services, do you smartphone companies need to further bring down device cost?
The sweet spot for 4G devices is the Rs 5000- Rs 10,000 segment and that’s where the mass uptake takes place. When it comes to 5G devices, almost 80% devices are 5G enabled in the Rs 20,000- Rs 50,000 category in India. So, Rs 20,000 and below is where the game starts for the mass. Between Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000, it is 50% 5g today. In the Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 category, the number could be around 15% for 5G enabled phones. With 5G launched, it will really spin the game of 5G devices. There will be a big boom in terms of 5G devices sales. By March, the overall 5G handset share will be much higher as roll out catches up to more cities.
How many Airtel consumers are expected to opt for 5G?
Everyone with a 5G device will be able to use Airtel 5G without any limitation. Airtel 5G will work on devices which are bought in early 2020, which is unlikely on our rival’s network. 5G adoption will then depend on 5G availability in consumers’ area. My belief is in the area we will cover you should start seeing high single digit users starting to connect and numbers should be decent by March.
What sort of experience enhancement Airtel intends to offer with its 5G?
We want to offer 20-30x speed enhancement with 5G compared to 4G.
What is the update on Airtel’s OpenRAN strategy at a time when it has awarded 5G contracts to Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung?
We are a tech-enabling company which uses tech to provide services. So, OpenRAN’s readiness to serve a larger scale will happen towards the end of 2023 because we want the total cost of ownership to come down…the chips which will give you lower cost, lower power and lower form factors are generally coming from the chip manufacturers, who have started shopping them now and by the time they get into labs and production, the time will be next year second half. We have live sites in Punjab and we are pleasantly surprised with the performance. We have other versions live in Manesar. I think by next year’s second half, you should see volumes start picking up on OpenRAN. The first wave of 5G will not see OpenRAN.
Airtel previously shared a plan to develop the whole stack with partners. What’s the update?
It is still the same set of partners. We don’t own that stack, rather we are playing the role of a matchmaker. OpenRAN gives you the opportunity to mix the best technologies from different partners…it is like a Subway sandwich where you can make the sandwich as per your requirement… Similarly we have a set ecosystem partners with which this will get launched. And I would imagine now we are going steady.
Do you have formal agreements in place for OpenRAN?
Our contracts are already there on OpenRAN. It is about when it gets started to deploy at scale in our networks.
Do you think Airtel will be able to solve higher system integration costs associated with OpenRAN?
We are meeting with partners to solve it. We have a line of sight.
What’s the update on enterprise partnerships to develop use cases?
That’s progressing very well. You will start seeing some action as we expand our services. We work with almost all industries throughout enterprise business. Some industries are advanced in knowing what 5G can do for them. So, those will happen. And some industries are still evaluating the benefits of 5G. There, we will have to work together to help them identify benefits.
What are your views on private 5G network opportunities for Airtel? Are in touch with existing enterprise clients?
Private networks are based on two kinds of approaches. One is using a slice on the public network itself where nothing is deployed on your premise that only gives you assured service and is the cheapest way to go. For private networks, only those companies will go who have a need of on-prem data; they don’t want their data to go on a public network. So, those trials are also on but I would say a company’s business need which makes it pay more for a private network is yet to get established.
Any concluding comments on 5G?
5G In India will surprise us at the speed and the pace it will get adopted. Because if you compare it with the world where 5G has not made an impact on a wireless user’s life because 4G is already very fast there and nobody cares about 5G in other countries. For a wireless connection, there’s nothing on your phone today which needs more than 30 Mbps right. In India, we are below that mark. So, 5G will really give an unshackling experience to people who will experience better services.