Indian government to award 5G spectrum in Q1 2021: Report

India’s Department of Telecommunications is expected to carry out a 5G spectrum auction in the first quarter of 2021, Indian press reported, citing a top executive of telecommunications operator Bharti Airtel.

The executive said that the telco will refrain from taking part in the spectrum auction if the reserve price is too high.

Bharti Airtel India and South Asia Managing Director and CEO Gopal Vittal said the company is working on a spectrum auction strategy and may look for some frequencies to improve network inside buildings and in rural areas across India.

“We are hearing from the Department of Telecommunications that there may be an auction early next year. Anywhere between January and March time frame.

“If in that auction, the reserve price of 5G is high (…) we will not buy at these prices. We will not be able to afford it,” Vittal said during Airtel’s earning call.

Regulator Trai has recommended a price of INR 4.9 billion ($65 million) per megahertz for spectrum in the 3.3-3.6 Ghz band.

A previous Finance Ministry recommendation suggested reducing the 5G reserve price of per MHz to make it more affordable. All Indian service providers, including Reliance Jio, Airtel and Vodafone Idea, have asked the government to lower the base price for spectrum, especially that meant for 5G.

Vittal said the company is also considering whether it should bid for spectrum in the 1.8 GHz band, as the use of 2G services is coming down every quarter.

The executive also noted that Bharti Airtel may look at incremental capacity in the 2.3 GHz band, which is currently being used for 4G services.

The auction will include the sale of almost 8,300 megahertz of airwaves, including 5G spectrum in the 3.3-3.6 GHz band and 4G spectrum in the 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1.8 GHz, 2.1 GHz, 2.3 GHz and 2.5 GHz bands.

The auction was initially expected to take place in 2020, but the government decided to postpone the process due to the poor financial health of the industry and worries that the reserve price was too high to attract interest.

According to previous press reports, Bharti Airtel was expected to submit new applications for 5G trials with European vendors Nokia and Ericsson for circles or cities where it previously requested permits to partner with Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE.

According to the reports, Bharti Airtel recently applied for Kolkata and Bengaluru circles with Nokia and  Ericsson, instead of ZTE and Huawei, respectively.

This move allowed the Department of Telecommunications to release spectrum for 5G trials without having to decide on the participation of Chinese vendors in local 5G trials.

The Indian government did not yet reach a final decision on whether to allow Chinese equipment makers to take part in 5G trials. However, recent press reports stated that industry executives and government officials said that key ministries have clearly indicated that local carriers should avoid using gear from Chinese vendors in future 5G networks.

The U.S. government has been pressuring its allies and friendly countries, including India, to bar Huawei from 5G deployments, due to security concerns.

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