Why was Airtel in such a rush to roll out its 4G services in Kolkata, given that it only has partial coverage? We don’t see a reason as to why users would consider buying a 4G connection, firstly, due to the extremely high tariffs, secondly, the ridiculous data caps, and finally, the limited nature of the roll-out.  Starting at a price of Rs 999, going upto Rs 1999, the service allows users to consume data in the range of 6GB to a maximum of 18 GB, after which speeds are capped at the ridiculously low transfer rates of 128 kbps. Speaking on a conference call following the launch, Airtel CEO, Sanjay Kapoor, justified the caps by saying that the bundle data was more than enough for average consumption and that the company would offer smart bytes packages on the line of its broadband offerings to users who want more bandwidth.

– On data caps; positioning? When someone pointed out that the data caps would hamper content consumption and that watching a few high quality videos might gobble up tremendous amount of data, Kapoor came up with a rebuttal that world wide, wireless technologies are not used for heavy data consumption, and that if customers wanted to consume 100 GB of data, they should switch to fixed line. He also said that common web browsing tasks can easily be accomplished with 3G speeds. So we’re not quite sure how Airtel plans to position 4G when it’s not seamless for mobility (at least Airtel’s roll-out is not), not meant for heavy data use, and much more expensive than other services.

– Partial Coverage: Kapoor and other Airtel execs informed that the roll-out in Kolkata was limited to 20-25 pockets which had been identified by Airtel, and were contributing about 50% to data on Airtel’s other data offerings. So connectivity across the city will not be seamless, at the moment and it’s focusing on indoor coverage at the moment. The company plans to increase the footprint, after guaging the response to the service, in terms of connections and devices, sold. While the network has been deployed by ZTE on Indus’ Towers in Kolkata, Airtel refused to reveal the number of 4G base stations. Existing towers have been upgraded with 4G radio equipment and backhaul support. The company also refused to reveal the investment made on 4G deployment.

While technically, the service is capable of delivering downloads speeds of upto 100 Mbps, Airtel says that 10-15 Mbps would be the speed that users would get in real time, as it depends on devices, the number of users at a given point in time, applications and other factors.

– Multimode devices– Since regulations do not permit voice on 4G, the service is limited to internet, and Airtel has launched USB dongles and a Wifi router. However, these devices are multi-mode, which means that they can switch over to 3G and 2G networks wherever 4G is not available. We don’t know if Airtel would charge data consumed on a 3G band (on a 4G plan) differently, but if that’s not the case, we don’t think it’s cost effective.

The company has indicated that it does not plan to launch devices with in-built 4G radios, in the near future, but the Wifi router can make 4G available to all Wifi capable devices. Could we see a tablet being bundled with the Wifi router or phone? Kapoor did not comment on specific device tie-ups but said that Airtel has always been working with smart device makers and that 70% of iPhones in India were on Airtel. We don’t think that the company is going to launch 4G LTE capable smartphones, atleast not in the near future.

– Content- Airtel already has tie-ups with BigFlix, UTV Indiagames and others for video on demand, online gaming and live tv services, on its broadband offering. It will extend the same services to 4G users. Kapoor did not comment on the possibility of a tripple play service on 4G saying that it was still at an early stage.

– Other roll-outs: Airtel plans to launch 4G services in Bangalore in the next 30 days, informed Kapoor, for which equipment company, Huawei has already deployed the network. Following that, the company will roll out 4G in Pune and Chandigarh.

Nikhil adds: To Kapoor’s suggestion that users should move to fixed line if they want higher data limits, it’s not like Airtel Broadband is being offered without a “Fair Usage Policy”.