The 3G vs. 4G question seems quite obvious as there is an entire generation gap between these two telecommunication technologies. Moreover, in India, it is not just generation that divides 3G and 4G apart, but even more factors. Let us take a look into the technical and economical aspects of 3G and 4G in India.
A Little History About 3G
3G is an old technology, which evolved over the years, and entered very late into India. The first 3G networks in the world were introduced in as early as 2001. Earlier versions of 3G like W-CDMA (UMTS) offered speeds of upto 384 Kbps. 3G networks were not widely implemented before 2005 as existing 2G network could be easily upgraded to 2.75G EDGE network, which offered speed of upto 236 Kbps. While the rest of the world started moving to 3G networks starting 2005, the first 3G network in India was deployed by BSNL in 2009. By this time 3G technology had evolved a lot and 3.5G HSPA networks started offering speeds of upto to 3.5Mbps, which were rolled out by BSNL and MTNL. In late 2010, Tata DoCoMo rolled out its 3.75G HSPA network, offering speeds of upto 21.1Mbps, and this was soon followed by other operators.
The Generation Gap Of 4G
The most promising technology of this decade, 4G LTE, was first deployed in 2007. The generation gap with 3G makes 4G much more advanced, and it is able to offer several times higher speed than existing 3G networks. 4G LTE networks around the world offer typical speed of 100Mbps, while LTE Advance (LTE-A) networks that offer speeds of upto 300Mbps have been deployed around the world. When it comes in India, operators will offer 4G LTE with max speeds of upto 48Mbps. The network can be upgraded to higher speeds if required in future.
Default Network Speeds
Even though operators claim that they offer 21.1 Mbps speeds on their 3G networks, 7.2 Mbps BTS is deployed in most location, while 21.1 Mbps and 14.4 Mbps speeds are offered only in city limits. It is also worth noting that existing 3G networks can be upgraded to 42.2 Mbps HSPA+ networks easily, matching with current 4G speeds. When it comes to 4G, it is expected that almost all 4G BTS will provide default speed of upto 48 Mbps.
More Spectrum = More Capacity
3G networks are typically deployed in India over the 2100 MHz spectrum band. The problem with this high-frequency spectrum band is its low coverage. Operators are trying to solve this problem by deploying 3G over more efficient 900 MHz band, but both bands are very limited in supply in India, and operators have just 5 MHz paired frequency in each band. This causes the 3G network to run out of capacity as soon more users get connected, which leads to network congestion and speed drops. There is also an artificial scarcity of spectrum in 2100 MHz band that is primarily due to defence department holding a significant portion of it, which is yet to be fully released.
When it comes to 4G, 20 MHz unpaired frequency in 2300 MHz band is allocated to the operators. Moreover, telecom operators in India have bagged additional 5 MHz paired frequency in 1800 Mhz to solve the coverage issue faced in the 2300 MHz band. Combining both these bands will give 4G operators like Airtel and Reliance Jio 20 to 30 MHz of spectrum in each circle for deploying 4G services. This is two to three times more than what 3G operators have, and incidentally this will result in two to three times more capacity. Also, 4G can be deployed on 850 MHz CDMA spectrum used in India, which is more efficient in terms of coverage than 900 MHz 2G/3G spectrum.
Initially, 3G didn’t pick up pace in India due to high cost of devices and higher-priced 3G data packs. Cost of devices fell rapidly after the entry of smartphones, which comes default with 3G support. Now, 3G has superiority in device ecosystem, which is soon set to change as almost all the latest smartphones support 4G LTE.
4G Tariffs To Be Cheaper Than 3G Tariffs
It is a general outlook that 4G will be more expensive than 3G. This is due to the fact that 3G was almost 5 times more expensive than 2G when it was first introduced in India. Also, Airtel charged a hefty rate when they first launched 4G in India. Airtel soon learned their lesson and reduced 4G tariffs to 3G tariff levels.
From operators’ perspective, 3G is an expensive gamble. The 2100 MHz and 900 MHz bands are one of the highest paid spectrums in India. While 4G spectrums like 2300 MHz, 1800 MHz and 850 MHz are the cheapest ones available in India. As spectrum is cheaper, and has better capacity to handle more users, operators will be able to offer 4G at almost half the rates when compared to 3G. With increased competition from pure-play 4G operators like Reliance Jio, the 4G data rates are all set to fall in the coming years.
Also read: Airtel 4G plan details
Support For Voice Calls
The last thing standing in its way to become a superior technology is voice support. The best advantage of 3G network is its support for voice calls and ability to handle voice and data at the same time. While 4G network is data only, it doesn’t have support for traditional voice calls. One way of solving this problem is to use Circuit Switched Fall Back (CSFB) to 2G/3G network for voice support. But for pure-play 4G players, this won’t be an efficient long-term solution. The latest Voice Over LTE (VoLTE) solves this problem and offers HD voice quality to the users. This technology is currently being implemented by major 4G operators across the globe.
Is This The End of 3G In India?
Seen as the most promising technology of the last decade, 3G is going to be short-lived in India. With mass deployment of 4G networks, 3G will soon become obsolete. Operators like Airtel are already offering 4G at the rate that is similar to 3G rates, and consumers get to choose the network they want, so 4G will be the obvious winner. Global operators like Telenor Norway has already announced its plans to shutdown 3G networks by 2020, five years ahead of 2G network shutdown. The days of 3G are already being counted, and it will eventually reach its end in India as well.
An IT professional who has got great passion for telecom. Has been closely watching Indian telecom space since 2009.