BSNL subscribers waiting for faster wireless connectivity may have to wait for a year or more, as the government today clarified that the state-owned telecom operator has not given orders for 4G equipment for its much-delayed network expansion.
Nearly 11 years after 3G and 4G spectrum was first handed over to the company, BSNL is yet to roll out 4G services in most of its license areas.
It has, however, tested out 4G services in some areas by reallocating some of its 3G spectrum for a pilot 4G service.
As such, the company had 8,629 4G base stations as of the end of 2020, which is equal to about 1% of the footprint of Reliance Jio — which has around 8 lakh base stations — and less than 2% compared to Airtel and Vodafone Idea, which have about 4-5 lakh 4G cell sites.
BSNL employees’ unions have been calling for the expedited approval of 4G equipment purchase orders. Some union activists fear that the government is purposely keeping the company back to benefit its rivals.
A previous tender for 4G equipment worth Rs 8,700 cr was cancelled in July last year, reportedly because the government wanted only Indian equipment vendors to participate in the process.
Responding to a question on the status of BSNL’s 4G rollout today, minister of state for communication, Sanjay Dhotre, said steps are being taken for BSNL to launch high-speed LTE services.
He said a new tender for buying 4G equipment is being planned, and as part of this, Indian manufacturers have been asked to submit ‘proofs of concept’ on January 1 this year.
“BSNL plans to roll out 4G services on large scale after finalisation of tender for procurement of the 4G equipment,” Dhotre said.
Going by the current speed, BSNL is likely to be finally be able to roll-out 4G later this year, when everyone else has already moved on to 5G.
It is therefore likely that the company is likely to start rolling out its 4G network towards the end of 2021, and finish the process towards the end of 2022 or early 2023.
Meanwhile, there are reports that the company is trying to add its recently allocated 4G spectrum to its pilot service to improve speeds whereever the 8,000-odd towers are currently located. The government allocated some extra 4G spectrum to the company in December last year to facilitate the expansion.
It remains to be seen whether the company would repeat events with regard to the upcoming 5G rollout as well.
Telecom companies are all set to bid for 5G spectrum around September of this year, and are likely to start rolling out the service by around October or November.
5G services will be 25-100 times faster than 4G, depending on the amount of spectrum the government makes available during the auction. As a result, BSNL is unlikely to be able to compete with 5G players by using 4G technology alone.
The government has already said that it will allocate some 5G spectrum to BSNL without forcing the company to bid against private players in the upcoming auction.
As such, there have been speculation that BSNL may ‘leap frog’ 4G altogether, and directly roll out 5G services later this year. However, there has been no word on BSNL’s 5G plans, either from the government or the company.