Airtel announces partnership with Tata group for 5G network solutions

Leading telecom firm Bharti Airtel on Monday announced a strategic partnership with the steel-to-software conglomerate Tata group for 5G network solutions. Based on open radio access network (ORAN) technology, the plan is to roll out the solution initially for India subsequently for exports.

The move is being seen as far more ambitious than Airtel’s original plan of collaborating with hardware software players to build a 5G network at the lowest price. As a senior executive said, the original plan was not “to become an R&D provider for the world”.

With the latest announcement, the Sunil Mittal-led firm is expected to now take rival Reliance Jio head on. Mukesh Ambani’s telecom venture Jio is already working on trials for its indigenously developed 5G network, based on ORAN. Jio would also sell the technology solutions to global telcos, it had announced earlier.

Bharti Airtel has roped in Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) for its system integration capability. The ORAN technology requires expertise in integration of disparate elements of hardware software based on an open source technology.

The earlier technology, provided by incumbent telecom gear makers like Ericsson Nokia, was based on proprietary technology with hardware software fused into one offering.

Under ORAN, telecom operators can buy their hardware as well as software from multiple players, thus increasing competition reducing overall costs of the network. But to enable this, telcos need a system integrator for powering the network.

The Tata group, quite like Reliance Jio, has also built state of the art ORAN-based radio as well as standalone non-standalone core, which control the network. The ORAN network is increasingly dependent on software, giving it more flexibility as well as efficiency. Reliance, which also bought Radisys in the US, has used it as a base for software solutions required for 5G.

Gopal Vittal, MD CEO (India South Asia) of Bharti Airtel, said: “We are delighted to join forces with the Tata group to make India a global hub for 5G allied technologies. This will also provide a big boost to Indian innovation manufacturing destination.”

N Ganapathy Subramaniam, COO of TCS, said: “As a group we are excited about the opportunity presented by 5G. We are pleased to have Airtel as our customer.”

The new alliance has an advantage over Jio in the global market as Bharti Airtel already either has its own networks or holds stake in telecom ventures across many geographies including Africa, Bangladesh Sri Lanka. As for TCS, it services numerous telcos around the world.

For Airtel, the initiative to develop its own 5G technology based on ORAN is not new. Earlier, it had discussions with Tech Mahindra to engage it as a system integrator software partner. It has also tied up with global partners including Japanese hardware giant NEC, Taiwanese major Sercomm, cloud player Red Hat start ups like the US-based Mavenir, apart from Rakuten of Japan. It also tied up with US-based firm Altiostar to build small cells for deployment in 4G later for 5G.

There are other JVs too. For instance, the group has signed up with Dixon Technologies for manufacturing a range of telecom products under the production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme.

An internal R&D team will be at work for system integration technology collaboration.

TCS is not the only player in the ORAN sweepstakes. Tech Mahindra, apart from talks with Airtel, has also shown interest in bidding for BSNL 4G network. Wipro HCL Technologies have also had talks with global players in this space. Among others, Sterlite Technologies is building its own technology for ORAN radios while HFCL wants to go a step further manufacture the radio too. Bengaluru-based Saankhya is there too, having developed 5G radio along with base stations chipsets.

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