Despite the lack of buzz around LTE (long-term evolution), India is expected to see adoption of the mobile technology go mainstream by 2015 when equipment cost falls and as bandwidth pressures continue to increase.
Local telco Airtel launched TD-LTE services in Kolkata and Bengaluru in April and May, respectively. To date, the service does not offer mobility but is touted to be 10 times faster than a wireline DSL connection. Compared to DSL, though, TD-LTE service and equipment are considerably more expensive.
"Unlike 3G, there has been no buzz around 4G," Tapash Chakravarty, a Kolkata-based entrepreneur, said in a phone interview. Since the 3G launch in India was quite a disappointment, customers in Kolkata have not shown much eagerness to try out 4G, he noted. "I don't know anyone here who has even tried to find out more about the service," Chakravarty said.
While often marketed by telcos as "4G", LTE is developed by the 3G Partnership Project and not regarded by some in the industry to be a true 4G technology.
ZDNet reached out to Bharti Airtel to determine customer response to 4G in Kolkata and Bengaluru, but the corporate communications team did not provide details on the subscriber base or the uptake of their service.
Praveen Bhadada, director of market expansion at Zinnov Management Consulting, said it would take at least two years for India to reach "full-fledged LTE adoption". He noted that 3G had seen the same gestation period.
Bhadada said since TD-LTE was a relatively new technology, prices of equipment and devices had yet to drop, resulting in higher cost for consumers.
Kamlesh Bhatia, research director at Gartner, concurred, adding that wider adoption of 4G will take time and should reach mainstream by 2015 or 2016.
Noting that the TD-LTE ecosystem was still evolving, he said: "The good thing is the large operators, such as Bharti Airtel and Reliance Industries with a pan-India BWA license, have thrown their weight behind this technology."
Demand for devices such as iPad and smartphones also has put considerable pressure on bandwidth as more consumers download video and other interactive content.
"4G can help overcome this bandwidth challenge," said Pratyush Dasgupta, vice president engineering at Aricent.
Huge potential in India
India has only 10.7 million broadband subscribers, compared to over 600 million mobile phone subscribers in the country. The number of Internet users is estimated at 121 million--of which 20 million are on mobile Internet--and is expected to increase to over 400 million by 2015.
"We have huge potential to grow broadband connectivity," Dasgupta said.
Concurred Bhatia: "India is deficient in terms of fixed broadband and LTE can give it a push." However, it is also a highly price-sensitive market and operators need to offer the right package at the right price, he noted.
The biggest advantage with TD-LTE is that operators can configure uplink and downlink bandwidth depending on the users' requirement.
Initially, TD-LTE is expected to serve the upper segment of the market that needs faster data speeds on laptops, which will generate revenues for operators. Bhatia explained: "In any market, 30 percent of the subscribers give 70 percent of the revenues. This 30 percent will be interested in 4G."
In the Indian context, TD-LTE is advantageous for offering services such as e-government, telemedicine and e-banking as it can offer high speed data connectivity at a lower cost, compared to FDD-LTE (frequency division duplexing LTE) which uses two frequencies.
TD-LTE also can make a difference in rural India where infrastructure deployment is a huge challenge.
"On LTE, per mega bit cost is significantly lower compared to GPRS, EDGE and 3G. For GPRS, it is 40 cents per megabyte, compared to LTE where it is less than 10 cents," Dasgupta added.
Key factors of success
According to Bhadada, mass awareness and adoption at upcountry level will be a key success factor for many players.
There needs to be wider availability of LTE-enabled smartphones and low-cost handsets, and the cost of such devices will need to come down to less than US$55 to create the volume needed. "The market maturity is a big bet companies might be taking. While metro markets are definitely interesting, returns on such investments will only come from volumes," he said.
Bhatia noted Reliance Industries-owned Infotel Broadband Services will likely adopt a price-led strategy, which could make a difference to the 4G market because it is difficult to beat the incumbents in terms of innovation.
According to various reports, Reliance will launch its LTE service only in end-2012 or early-2013.
Dasgupta also pointed to price as a key success factor in LTE adoption as India remains an extremely price-sensitive market. Policies, therefore, must ensure the industry is able to offer such services at an attractive price.
Better ability to access information on-the-go also will be a success driver, Bhadada said, while Dasgupta pointed to the uptake of applications such as video streaming, mobile TV and online games.
With the Indian market predominantly a voice-call market, and will continue to be so in the shorter term, voice-over-LTE will take the technology mainstream.
"People don't like to have separate devices or service connections for voice and data," Dasgupta said. "Once voice-over-LTE becomes a reality, it will be one of the cornerstones for the success of LTE."
He also highlighted the need for fiber infrastructure. "Any assistance from the government in this area will be of great help to increase the capacity of backhaul, which might be a bottleneck in offering the true data speed that LTE can offer," he explained.
Swati Prasad is a freelance IT writer based in India.