India’s operators have yet to launch 4G services, but they will attract little interest unless service providers can offer their customers a selection of affordable 4G devices.
Until now, the biggest hindrance to the rollout of 4G networks in India has been the lack of a device ecosystem. Indian operators have been forced to launch the TDD version of 4G using spectrum in the 2.3GHz band, which has been ignored by many device makers. Available gadgets have tended to be extremely expensive, making them unsuitable for the Indian market. Except in relatively affluent Bengaluru, Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL) has opted to provide a 4G service only on dongles and WiFi routers because of the shortage of low-cost 4G handsets.
This is gradually changing. A number of lower-cost 4G devices have been launched in the last couple of months that will function in the Indian market. Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC) has added four such smartphones to its portfolio — the Galaxy A7, Galaxy Grand Prime 4G, Galaxy Core Prime 4G and Samsung J1 4G — with prices starting at 9,900 Indian rupees ($156.90). Micromax Informatics Ltd. , a prominent domestic device maker, introduced a 4G handset branded Yu Yureka at the end of February 2015.
Even so, the 4G devices market remains fairly small. According to data from Cybermedia Research, some 1.06 million LTE devices were shipped in the last three months of 2014. iPhone maker Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) remained the biggest vendor, with a 45% share of the market, while High Tech Computer Corp. (HTC) (Taiwan: 2498) claimed a 19% share and Samsung about 16%.
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As wealthier customers replace their devices, they are increasingly looking for handsets that are compatible with 4G technology in anticipation of service launches. But the 3G experience has shown that services will not flourish until device prices fall to below $150 per unit.
Encouragingly, 4G smartphone prices may at last be dropping to this level. Indeed, Lenovo Group Ltd. (Hong Kong: 992)’s A6000 is available for around INR6,999 ($110.93) at Flipkart, a prominent online store in India. Micromax’s Yu Yureka is currently available for INR8,999 ($142.6), while Xiaomi’s Redmi Note costs INR6,999 ($110.93). Other Indian handset makers, including Karbonn Mobiles and Lava International Ltd. , are also planning to launch 4G devices in the next few months.
At the recently concluded Mobile World Congress 2015, a number of device makers showcased more affordable 4G handsets, including Sony Mobile Communications AB ‘s Xperia E4G, Lenovo’s A7000 and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)’s Lumia 640. And Motorola Mobility LLC is planning to introduce a 4G version of its Moto E smartphone. In all likelihood, these smartphones will be available in India a few months from now.
These device developments neatly align with the plans of the operators. Reliance Jio, the only pan-Indian owner of 2.3GHz spectrum, is likely to launch 4G services later this year. Bharti Airtel — which has launched 4G in the cities of Bengaluru, Kolkata, Pune and Chandigarh — plans to install 20,000 4G sites this year. Other operators, including Vodafone India and Aircel Ltd. , are also planning to launch 4G services soon.
As the service providers get closer to launching 4G services, an even broader range of affordable devices is likely to become available.