Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, the government-controlled telecom company, is likely to start its 4G services with a modest 10,000 towers.
In comparison, players like Idea Cellular, Vodafone and Bharti Airtel have between 50,000-100,000 4G towers, while Reliance Jio has around 200,000 LTE base stations.
BSNL has planned for only 10,000 4G node B or base stations as part of its Phase-8.4 expansion of its wireless services, in which the initial roll-out of 4G is included.
On a positive note, the company could be given ‘temporary allocation’ of 700 MHz spectrum by the government for one year to help with the launch.
The company had initially asked for a 20-year allocation of the crucial spectrum, but of late, it has asked for at least a temporary allocation.
A single tower on 700 MHz spectrum can cover as much area as a five towers in the 2100 or 2300 MHz spectrum bands that are used by private sector players like Idea Cellular.
In other words, BSNL can cover as much area with its 10,000 towers as a player like Idea can using 50,000 towers on 2300 MHz.
However, even as it achieves coverage, such a network will be heavily congested as the use of 700 MHz band will simply increase coverage without increasing capacity.
To overcome this, the company is likely to deploy band 41 4G spectrum as well, which will increase capacity by five to six times. The state-owned company was allocated band 41 4G spectrum almost seven years ago, and is yet to start 4G operations.
However, the coverage of band 41 is only about 20% that of 700 MHz band.
While customers as far away as 6 km could latch on to 700 MHz signals, band 41 signals will service only up to about 2 km or so.
In addition to the above two bands, BSNL also has the option of switching off its 3G service and converting it to a 4G service. However, it is unlikely to go for this route as it will create disaffection among consumers who possess only 3G handsets.
The delay has cost BSNL heavily in terms of revenue, growth and subscriber additions.
Many users have ported from BSNL to 4G-enabled networks like Idea, Vodafone, Airtel and Reliance Jio to take advantage of faster data speeds.
BSNL currently offers its high-speed service using a single 5 MHz block of 3G spectrum, while other players have 10-20 times as much data-capacity on their networks due to the use of more spectrum and 4G technology.
BSNL is also facing tight finances due to the encroachment of 4G services on its broadband business. At present, 4G wireless services offer data at around Rs 8 per GB, which is cheaper than some of the DSL plans provided by BSNL.
BSNL is expected to start its 4G services by around January 20 next year.
BSNL users may get access to Reliance Jio 4G under ICR agreement