India’s top two telcos, Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel, have hit several milestones since they launched their 5G networks last year.

Together, they have deployed around 324,000 5G base stations across the country, according to data shared by India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT). The government claims this is the fastest 5G deployment anywhere in the world.

Jio and Airtel recently revealed that they have met the minimum rollout obligations in all 23 circles (the country’s service areas). Jio claims that it is operating 85% of the operational 5G base stations in the country, and is targeting pan-India coverage by the end of this year. Meanwhile, Airtel is targeting to cover the entire country by March 2024.

At the recently concluded 47th Annual General Meeting, Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani revealed that Jio has 50 million 5G subscribers, while Airtel had 10 million 5G subscribers as of June this year.

Even as both Airtel and Jio are expanding 5G networks at breakneck speed, they continue to offer unlimited 5G at 4G rates. So, users that have 5G-enabled devices can use the 5G network at 4G rates. Even so, Airtel CEO Gopal Vittal mentioned earlier this year that 5G services have led to growth in data consumption, and the company has also raised the challenge of monetization in 5G on several occasions.

Jio recently mentioned that it would be introducing 5G tariffs in December, more than a year after the launch of services in October 2022.

Jio and Airtel to slug it out in FWA market

One of the key focus areas for both Airtel and Jio is fixed wireless access (FWA) services. India has limited fiber connectivity and, as of June 2023, only 35.1 million wired broadband subscribers. As the dependency on digital infrastructure increases, there is a growing need for high-speed broadband, which the telcos believe can be addressed with FWA.

Airtel has already launched its fixed XStream service, and Jio announced that it would be launching its FWA service, AirFiber, on September 19.

Competition between Airtel and Jio is likely to heat up over the next few months as they each attempt to gain a foothold in the FWA market, which has potential to be the biggest use case for 5G in India.

Media reports suggest that Jio is planning to launch 5G-enabled economically-prized mobile devices soon. Jio has in the past launched heavily subsidized 4G devices to make it easier for 2G users to move to 4G and is likely to follow a similar strategy for 5G. India still has more than 250 million 2G users, and Jio has been canvassing for 2G Mukt Bharat (2G Free India).

Jio has a large number of prepaid customers, and it will be critical for the company to use 5G to get high-value post-paid customers. While Jio has more than 450 million subscribers, most of them tend to use the company for a second SIM, not as a primary connectivity partner. On the other hand, Airtel has largely focused on high average revenue per user (ARPU) customers.

5G services are also crucial for both Jio and Airtel to attract customers from Vodafone Idea, which is yet to launch 5G services and is struggling financially. Vodafone Idea has a significant chunk of high-ARPU subscribers and Jio and Airtel are using 5G to pull its customers to their networks.

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