Jio Impact: 4G overtakes 2G in network size in India

A single tower often hosts multiple tenants

Reliance Jio, the telecom arm of Reliance Industries, has achieved what was considered impossible barely 18 months ago: India now has more 4G base stations than 2G base stations.

In other words, 4G service providers in India have put up more towers in the last three years than 2G installations in the last 32 years.

As of December 1, India had a total of 6,76,462 base stations on 4G, overtaking for the first time the total base stations on 2G, which was at 6,45,396.

More tellingly, the number of 4G base stations was nearly double that of 3G base stations, which were at 3,53,845 on that date.

The numbers point to the sheer pace at which telecom operators in India have rolled out their 4G base stations in response to the challenge posed by Reliance Jio.

It is estimated that out of the 6.76 lakh LTE base stations, close to 3 lakh have been put up by Reliance Jio and the remaining 3.76 lakh were put up by its competitors Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, Idea Cellular and Aircel Cellular.

Just today, Idea Cellular announced that it now has 1.44 lakh base stations that are either on 3G or 4G.

The exact number of Idea 4G base stations is not disclosed, but is estimated at around 80,000, with the remaining 64,000 being based on 3G.

Bharti Airtel has around 2.3 lakh broadband towers, counting both 3G and 4G. Out of this, about half, or 1.15 lakh, are estimated to be on LTE.

Taking all operators together, there was a total of 16.75 lakh base stations as of Dec 1.

It should be noted that such a number does not imply an equally astounding number of cell-sites or actual towers.

Most cell sites have multiple towers and each tower can have multiple antennae or installations.

Moreover, new technology allows mobile companies to use the same antenna and electronics to create a 2G, 3G and a 4G network in parallel.

As such, the actual number of cell sites in India is likely to be around 2.5 to 3.0 lakh — counting sites that host multiple towers as one — and around 5-6 lakh locations when counting each physical tower as a distinct installation.

Despite this, the sharp growth in 4G towers serves as a case study in what a single, determined operator can achieve.

Three years ago, when the scale of Jio’s ambitions were becoming known, Idea CEO Himanshu Kapania had predicted that 4G will take off only after 3G achieves a certain scale, adding that the new technology would be difficult to implement in India for another 2-3 years.

“With India’s per-capita income, we cannot afford expensive LTE, both in terms of equipment cost and handsets. It is only when the adoption around the world reaches billions of customers, when the overall ecosystem becomes far more favorable in terms of equipment supply as well devices that LTE should be launched,” he said at the time, noting that 3G penetration was still on 12% in India.

“Customers are not ready for it… World wide, in countries like US, Japan and Korea, where 4G has been launched, there 3G penetration had crossed 50% of 2G,” he had said.

Similarly, in 2016, Bharti Airtel CEO Gopal Vittal predicted tough going for Jio beyond the 40 mln number due to the lack of handsets. Jio currently has around 150 mln 4G customers.