Vodafone Idea possibly behind own schedule on rollout of 4G services

Vodafone Idea is behind its internal targets for 4G services, sources have said. The firm is already behind Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio on 4G subscriber base share. It is trying to roll out 4G sites before losing too many customers in a planned culling of low-revenue users.

The company is also bringing in 5G capacity in current 4G deployment, in anticipation of regulatory clearance. Vodafone Idea’s broadband market share is 20 per cent, compared to 20.4 per cent for Airtel and 54 per cent for Jio. “We have a big plan to roll out more 4G sites in the next 12 months than what either firm (meaning the pre-merger Vodafone India and Idea Cellular) had ever done. In March, we rolled out more than 12,000 sites and would have liked more than 20,000 this month but are not going to,” said a senior official.

A source said Vodafone Idea would like to move fast on this, to catch up with rivals. Another person in the know of matters said the delay in roll-out was “rather due to supply-side constraints — the telco recently finalised equipment vendors and still awaits deployment to roll out 4G capacity”. Queries sent to Vodafone Idea were not answered. It did not wish to clarify on the monthly network rollout targets. 

Sector watchers believe telcos won’t face any significant supply constraint, with equipment providers more than eager to jump to even 5G technology. An individual in the know of a top equipment provider said: “Equipment deployment for 4G rollout has been in top gear so far, with all manufacturing units firing in full swing. There is no latency.”

Prashant Singhal, TMT (telecom, media, technology) leader for emerging markets at EY, said: “As far as 4G rollout is concerned, equipment providers are already showcasing 5G equipment. So, on the supply side, there is no constraint. Operators have done a fair bit to roll out 4G themselves. Apart from these factors, 4G roll-out depends purely on how the operators themselves are releasing the necessary resources.”

CRISIL Research estimates telcos have invested a little over Rs 3 trillion for 4G network roll-out in the past three years. “All the leading telcos are providing 4G services across all 22 circles in the country. However, there are certain pockets, especially in metros and Circle-A, where users are facing issues such as call drops and lower speeds,” said Hetal Gandhi, director.

Last November, after their merger announcement, Vodafone Idea disclosed the firm had selected Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei and ZTE to supply new equipment, with the non-Chinese entities having the lion’s share of the deals, worth up to $1.4 billion (nearly Rs 10,000 crore). The firm had given equipment orders for technology such as ultra broadband radios, dynamic spectrum sharing , m-MIMOs and HetNets architecture. All key to the integration exercise in driving synergies of an estimated Rs 14,000 crore.

In February, Ericsson announced its deal with Vodafone Idea to deploy 5G-ready equipment across select markets in India. Ericsson India has already begun radio access and microwave network consolidation and modernisation. In March, Vodafone Idea announced a similar deal with Nokia for LTE coverage. 

A recent report from BNP Paribas says Airtel and Vodafone Idea, respectively, added 1.8 million and 0.4 million mobile broadband subscribers in February. Deceleration, compared to recent quarters, for both operators. The past six months’ average addition was 2.3 million and 2.5 million (monthly) for Airtel and Vodafone Idea, respectively.