India receives $18 billion bids for 5G auction, expects rollout in September

India received bids worth $18 billion on the first day of an auction for the 5G airwaves from tycoons including Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani as the race begins for faster data in the world’s second largest internet market.

Telecom Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw told reporters on Tuesday evening that bids went “far beyond our expectations” and “it looks like [the bidding level] will be at the same level” on Wednesday.

India expects the rollout of 5G networks to begin from September, he said. “By the end of the year, residents of several Indian cities will be able to experience 5G,” he said.

He said the government expects to fetch record revenue from the auction -- allocation of which the government plans to complete before August 15 -- though he stopped short of sharing any figure. The auction and details of the top bidders are expected to become clearer tomorrow, when the auction is expected to reach its completion.

Ambani’s Reliance Jio Infocomm, which counts Google and Meta among its backers, has long expressed enthusiasm about the 5G upgrade. The top Indian telecom operator, which launched five years ago, has said over the years that its infrastructure is 5G-capable already.

Adani’s interest in the 5G bid has been surprising. The Asia’s richest man has increased his fortunes in recent quarters by leveraging its infrastructure empire. Adani Enterprises is India’s biggest coal trader.

The company has however clarified that it is participating in the spectrum auction to provide private network solutions with enhanced cyber security in "in the airport, ports & logistics, power generation, transmission, distribution, and various manufacturing operations."

Other than Adani and Ambani, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea are also in the race for the bidding, the telecom ministry said Tuesday. Telecoms are eyeing 5G airwaves to boost their own revenues as they anticipate consumption of data to grow.

India is offering to sell 72 gigahertz of airwaves for a 20-year tenure in various frequency bands ranging from 600 megahertz to 26 gigahertz, it has said.

4G is currently the dominant subscription type driving connectivity growth in India, but "5G subscriptions are expected to rapidly increase to reach around 50 million in the region by the end of 2023," Ericsson said in a report last month.

"5G will represent around 39 percent of mobile subscriptions in the region at the end of 2027, with about 500 million subscriptions. As subscribers migrate to 5G, 4G subscriptions are forecast to decline annually to an estimated 700 million subscriptions in 2027."