Why Smartphone brands need to shut up about 5G capabilities in India

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Starting next week India is going to see a flood of 5G enabled smartphones enter the market. At least, that’s what the likes of Realme and iQOO will tell users that they have the first 5G smartphones in India, but this is a more hallow cry as India neither has the networks to support 5G connections and these phones are going to be obnoxiously expensive because 5G has been shoe-horned on the system on chip (SoC) that powers them. The thing is that we are seeing 5G on these smartphones because of Qualcomm, the maker of the Snapdragon 865 processor, has made the X55 5G modem a compulsory purchase with the SoC. That’s why theoretically almost every flagship Android phone in India will launch with 5G support this year. But like I said, this is a hallow marketing schpiel as these phones wouldn’t be dissimilar from what users are experiencing right now. 

  • As ET Telecom’s Danish Khan pointed out to me in a tweet, India’s 4G auctions took place in 2010. The telcos had already acquired the spectrum for 4G by 2010, so when Jio and some of the other players launched in 2016 there was a 6-year gap between spectrum acquisition and 4G launch in India. 
  • Sure, the devices that enabled 4G existed from 2015 onwards but it wasn’t till 2017 we saw 4G permeate across India. And one has to be mindful that the big trigger for the wide adoption of 4G was Reliance Jio and its free preview. 
  • Today for 5G our auctions haven’t even begun and considering the beleaguered state of both Airtel and more so Vodafone-Idea post the AGR costs, it is unlikely either would be in a position to cough up the money to acquire the spectrum and upgrade their network infrastructure. 5G seems to be almost half a decade away in India. 
  • One of the reasons smartphone vendors like iQOO and Realme are tom-toming 5G is because their devices are the first ones to use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor which comes with the compulsory X55 modem. Last year too, the Snapdragon 855 had the X50 modem but that was optional. So these brands are stuck with 5G capabilities even if the market isn’t there for it. 
  • That’s also why Samsung’s latest Galaxy S20 models don’t have 5G. In the United States, Samsung’s phones are powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chip, but in India, they are using their own Exynos 990 chip which is 4G only because that makes more sense for a market like India. 
  • The embedded 5G modem on the Snapdragon 865 will make sure any device that uses that chip is way more expensive as it will include an added cost of a new antenna setup for 5G and also the modem also adds to the costs. That’s how Samsung’s flagships are priced quite competitively this time around as they don’t use the Snapdragon 865. 
  • 5G phones also will have more compromised battery life as 5G sucks more battery. That’s why to compensate for the battery drain some of these phones have huge batteries which make the gadget itself unusable for many people because of the very size. 
  • From a broader perspective, many smartphone brands shouldn’t be blamed for 5G capabilities as this wasn’t in their hands. There are few companies in the world that make their own custom SoC — Apple, Samsung and Huawei are the prominent three and everyone else is mostly reliant on Qualcomm. If premium smartphone prices go up this year, Qualcomm will be the primary culprit because it is forcing its customers to buy the 5G modem along with the chip.
  • In terms of pure performance, Qualcomm’s latest chip may not still beat the A13 chip on the iPhone 11 so that should be a consideration for someone just looking at pure performance. It is more or less an incremental improvement over the Snapdragon 855 which was more than a generation behind Apple’s 2018 SoC the A12 Bionic. The big deal about the 865 is 5G and that’s not going to be usable in India.
  • From a broader perspective, it is quite laughable that Indian smartphone makers are talking about 5G as the country has some of the slowest 4G speeds around in the world. India’s 4G speeds aren’t even considered to be 4G in many markets.

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