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Mystery of Calcutta turning 4G launchpad

- All you wanted to know about the faster telecom service plus the debut theories
Sunil Bharti Mittal and Kapil Sibal at the launch of 4G in Calcutta on Tuesday. Picture by Kishor Roy Chowdhury

Calcutta, April 10: The country’s first full-fledged 4G telecom service was launched here this morning and, by the evening, a storm-tossed city was still trying to come to grips with a puzzling question: why Calcutta?

The 4G (fourth generation) service has stirred other questions too. The Telegraph tries to answer them.

How is 4G different from the other Gs?

The service promises data downloads at a blindingly fast 40 megabits (Mbps) per second. Simply put, you could download a copyright-protected movie in about 12 minutes. A grainy, pirated version via torrent streams can be snagged in about 2 minutes. A 2G network can provide data speed between 56 kilobits per second and 144 Kbps (1024 Kbps = 1Mbps). In 3G, speeds can go up to 21Mbps.

For instance, a 700MB (the normal CD size) file should take around 140 seconds in 4G to download and 266.6 seconds in 3G. In 2G, it can take more than 5 hours.

Big difference: In 2G and 3G, you can make calls and send text messages. 4G is exclusively for data at the moment and can largely be accessed on laptops, notebooks, tablets, desktops and phones with the help of 4G-enabled accessories (a USB stick or a wireless modem). Caveat: Since the technology is wireless, it will depend upon network availability and congestion.

Why was Calcutta chosen first?

Several reasons — ranging from the emotional to more staid rollout obligations — are being cited.

Theory 1

Calcutta is the place where Airtel’s Sunil Mittal will have to grapple with the toughest rollout obligations for the 4G service.

Mittal’s Bharti group had won broadband wireless access (BWA) spectrum in the four telecom circles of Calcutta, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Punjab after a bruising auction battle for the radio waves in June 2010.

Calcutta is the only metro circle on that list and that’s where Airtel will be held down to the highest standards of efficiency. Under the regulations, Airtel will have to provide “street-level coverage using the BWA spectrum in at least 90 per cent of the circle within five years of the effective date”. In the case of Airtel, the effective date is September 1, 2010 — the date when the right to use the awarded spectrum commercially commenced.

If the company slips up on the rollout obligation, it could face severe penalties that could even lead to the loss of spectrum rights.

In the three other circles, Airtel must ensure that at least 50 per cent of the rural short distance charging areas (SDCAs) — geographical areas with radii of roughly 25km where at least 50 per cent of the people live in villages — are covered within five years from the effective date. Not only is the requirement less stringent, it doesn’t insist on street-level coverage, either.

Theory 2

If you can’t get 3G, offer the faster 4G. Airtel did not get 3G licences in all the circles in India when the spectrum was auctioned. The circles in which Airtel did not get a 3G licence include Calcutta, Maharashtra and Punjab — three of the four places where it aggressively and successfully bid for 4G. Airtel is now using the excess 3G spectrum of others but such sharing is caught in a legal tussle. In Karnataka, it has a 3G licence but it still bid for 4G, probably because of the Bangalore region, where high-speed data traffic is expected to be one of the highest in the country.

Both 3G and 4G carry high-speed data. If Airtel wants to offset the limitation of not having 3G licences everywhere, 4G is a much faster alternative. 4G cannot carry voice for the time being but bulk data transmission is the big thing now.

Theory 3

“Bengal always sets new milestones. Today, a new milestone has been set with the launch of the 4G network,” said telecom minister Kapil Sibal who formally launched the service.

“We’ve always had an emotional connect with Calcutta,” said an Airtel spokesperson, highlighting the curious fact that Calcutta had served as a springboard for Mittal’s ambitions. It harks back to the time when a 20-something Mittal prowled the alleyways of central Calcutta scouting for business opportunities. It’s also the city where Airtel launched its very successful 2G service in 1995 that helped turn it into India’s telecom titan with revenues that will easily top Rs 40,000 crore in the full year ended March 2012.

What are the devices I need to access 4G?

Airtel has come up with a 4G-enabled device — a USB dongle or a USB stick with which you connect the laptop now. You can also install a 4G LTE (long-term evolution) wireless modem at home or in office that will make a radius of around 30 metres a Wi-fi hotspot.

A separate SIM card, different from the current SIM card in your mobile handset, has to be put inside the dongle or the modem to activate the service.

How much will 4G cost?

The modem is priced at Rs 7,750 and the dongle at Rs 7,999. The SIM card will cost Rs 49. Then, you have to choose a data plan with rentals such as Rs 999, Rs 1,399 and Rs 1,999, depending on speed.

I have a Wi-fi-enabled handset, laptop, desktop and tablet. Can I access 4G on all these?

Yes. The modem will help in setting up a local wireless network. Then any mobile handset, tablet or laptop that has Wi-fi will be able to connect to the 4G network. You can use the dongle on your desktop and laptop. But you cannot use the SIM card in your existing mobile handset.

Where do I get hold of these devices?

14 Airtel relationship centres in the city are expected to offer the devices.

Is 4G costlier than 3G?

There is not much of a cost difference in monthly outgo. By paying Rs 1,250 under 3G, the customer can get 10GB of data in Airtel and 5GB of data in Vodafone. Under Reliance 3G, the customer has to pay Rs 1,199 for 5GB of data. In Airtel 4G, the customer has to pay Rs 1,400 for 9GB of data.

However, the device costs are much higher in case of 4G. While, in 3G, USB dongles cost from Rs 1,400 to Rs 3,000, the 4G devices cost over Rs 7,000.

Sanjay Kapoor, CEO (India and South Asia) of Bharti Airtel, pointed out that such high-speed Internet in its inception cannot be affordable because of the high device costs and limited availability of spectrum. “The ecosystem (of lowcost devices) has to build up,” he said. He added that the government had to ensure that there was no paucity of spectrum as well.