Dec 16, 2008

India - 3G: The Untold Story and What it means to a Mobile User

Today (Dec 11, 2008) is a big day. Third generation or 3G mobile networks are finally here, for MTNL users in parts of Delhi and NCR. Mumbai will follow as soon as the pilots in Delhi are successful.

India has been making do with ancient mobile technology for long now. The current Second generation or 2G networks were designed to carry only voice, which does not require high data transfer speeds. With the advent of new technologies -- video streaming, mobile TV and mobile gaming, higher transfer speeds were necessary.

State-owned MTNL and BSNL have a head start over private players when it comes to 3G. As MTNL and BSNL get ready, most private players will be in a position to offer 3G services only towards the end of second quarter of 2009. MTNL is already tying up with service providers to enable different 3G services.

If you've ever used data on our standard networks before, you'll be well aware of the real-world download speed of about 5kbps on a good signal strength and low GSM traffic. That is barely enough to check email, surf a few websites and download a few small files.

With 3G speeds, however, the story is different.

Data transfer speeds in a 3G network are much faster. Simply put, compared to existing networks, you'll get about ten times higher speeds while surfing the internet on your mobile phone. This opens the door to a richer mobile internet experience - like you have on a broadband connected PC at home. But remember the speed can also vary depending on whether the device is stationary, moving slowly (like a person walking with a phone) or moving fast (like in a moving vehicle).

So what do you need to enjoy 3G?

Well, firstly, you need a 3G-enabled mobile phone. There are many in the market, starting from as low as Rs.8,000 (like the Nokia N70). Most new phones in the market are already 3G-ready. Then you need a 3G subscription from a mobile service provider. Once started, you will get access to bandwidth intensive applications and services that were until now only available for fixed line broadband internet connections. Video conferencing with other 3G users, live TV services, broadband internet (on mobile and for laptops) while on the move, real-time multiplayer gaming on mobile phones and video messaging are just some of the services that can be offered.

For rural India, there is another, bigger reason to celebrate. 3G technology especially heralds benefits to rural or hard-to-reach areas. This can increase broadband internet penetration without the need for expensive cabling.

Downsides? Service providers have spent a lot on buying and setting up the infrastructure. Plus for 3G, the cell towers need to be closer to each other, needing more to cover a city. So all the early adopters will be paying a high premium to use the services and even after that, it's not going to be cheap. Final rates depend on the operator of course, and call rates should remain roughly the same. Analysts suggest that data plans will start at Rs.599 (limited data) and go up to Rs.2,000 for unlimited data plans.

(11.12.08/Hitesh Raj Bhagat is a technology analyst with CyberMedia's Living Digital monthly. He can be reached at

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