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Airtel to apply for 5G trials without Chinese equipment makers: Reports

A telecom tower

Airtel will be applying to run 5G trials without Chinese vendors like Huawei and ZTE, PTI and the Economic Times reported. This comes as the government targets Chinese investments and companies in India in the wake of the Indo–Chinese border skirmishes. 5G spectrum has not yet been allotted to operators, and trials can only start when this happens. PTI quoted an anonymous government source as saying that Airtel was already going to submit a “backup” application for trials with Nokia and Ericsson, and that Vodafone–Idea was “expected to do the same”. Airtel declined to comment.

This doesn’t yet amount to a total ban on Chinese hardware in Indian 5G networks — the DoT told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology earlier this month that such a decision would be taken in consultation with the Ministry of Home Affairs. If the Home Ministry decides that Chinese vendors are indeed a security threat — as the US and UK have — then 5G networks in Airtel and Vodafone Idea’s networks would likely have to be built by hardware and technology by Nokia and Ericsson, or rely on homegrown technology.

Such an outcome would, at least for Airtel, likely discourage any immediate aggressive moves on 5G. Jio has said that it is ready to deploy 5G as soon as spectrum is made available — the Reliance-owned telco is in a better position to do so since it is not using Chinese vendors to built its network, and doesn’t have any pre-4G infrastructure on its wireless networks.

Airtel India CEO Gopal Vittal said in an earnings call that mainstream 5G adoption would take at least a couple years due to the economics of network upgradation and current handset costs. In that call in July, he had said of Chinese vendors, “We are committed to continued work with all our partners. If there is any government notification that emerges, we will abide by the law of the land. There is really nothing more to say on that.”

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

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