Airtel-4G-logoAirtel India CEO Gopal Vittal is of the opinion that 4G services are niche and are more for high value customers in India right now. During the company’s recent earnings conference call after announcing the company’s Q4-FY14 results, he said that 3G will be more mass market, but both technologies will co-exist over the next three years.

Vittal blamed the slow uptake of 4G on the device ecosystem. He said that 3G will be the leading contributor to incremental data growth in the next three years.

The telco also hasn’t disclosed any specific information on its 4G connection base this quarter. In the previous quarter, Airtel had claimed to have crossed the 100,000 mark in the country. It is not clear why the company stopped reporting the number of 4G connections this quarter, perhaps the increase in numbers were not significant enough.

Is this DTH vs IPTV all over again?

When DTH vs IPTV was still a talking point in 2009, Airtel’s President for Mobile Services Atul Bindal had told Medianama that DTH was a mass market entry for the company. They were looking at IPTV merely as a way to boost broadband usage than as a generational shift. Eventually IPTV became an afterthought and hardly gets a mention anywhere in company’s promotional activities.

It is not clear if Airtel’s 4G remark is with similar intentions, but the company seems to be taking a wait and watch approach from the looks of it.

Blame it on the ecosystem

Vittal has blamed the niche status on 4G device ecosystem, which according to him is not as developed as 3G. Airtel uses TD-LTE in India and iPhone is the only major device apart from Xolo LT 900 and LG G2 that support this band in India. Even global devices such as Nexus 5 does not support this variant of 4G. The company had launched 4G dongles and adopted a hotspot strategy due to this reason.

That said, with China Mobile planning on TD-LTE, the number of cheaper Chinese devices supporting this standard should increase. These devices would eventually make its way to India too.

Airtel had earlier mentioned that it is looking to use the 1800MHz spectrum it acquired in the February 2014 2G auctions, to roll out 4G networks using FD-LTE technology in the 1800 MHz band for a pan-India 4G rollout. It is not clear if this is because of lack of TD-LTE devices as of now.

The company had secured BWA spectrum in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab and Kolkata circles for Rs. 3314.36 crores in 2010 BWA auctions and later on acquired Qualcomm’s 4G business in India last year which included spectrum for Mumbai and Delhi, Haryana and Kerala circles.

The next generation of 4G devices are expected to support both TD and FD variants of 4G. However if the telco decides to adopt different variants in different circles, it might affect its customer base using current generation devices that do not support all the variants of 4G.  Earlier this month, Airtel had extended its 4G LTE service for smartphones to Chandigarh, Mohali and Panchkula. after launching it in Bangalore this February.