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Chasing A Mirage? The Great Race to be India’s First 5G Phone

Supporting a network that doesn’t exist

by: - Last updated on: February 23rd, 2020

In an incident in Jerome K Jerome’s classic “Three Men in a Boat,” some travellers walk into an inn on the shores of a river. They see a huge fish displayed in a glass case above the counter. A person tells them that it is a massive fish and that he caught it and gave it to the landlord to display it. A few minutes later, another person makes the same claim. And so do a few others. The travellers tell the landlord about this, and he laughs and says that actually he himself had caught the fish – why would he display a fish caught by someone else in his establishment? One of the travellers gets curious and tries to see the fish from closer up. Unfortunately, he dislodges the glass case which falls to the ground and gets shattered.

And so does the fish. Because it is actually made of Plaster of Paris.

Well, what those travellers felt on their discovery must have been very similar to what we are feeling at the constant claims of at least three companies of bringing the “first 5G phone to India.” It is a laudable achievement. It is worthy of applause. The only problem is that it refers to something that does not really exist.

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There is no 5G in India.

Let us get a bit of background here. 5G is of course the next generation of mobile broadband that is much faster and more efficient than the existing 4G/LTE. It is available in very limited areas. India is not one of them. In fact, as per some folks, 5G might not even come to India for another year or so, some say it might take even more time and might be seen only in 2022.

Which makes the battle for being India’s first 5G phone a little… interesting.

The first company to make the claim was BBK’s new brand, iQOO which announced in January that it would be launching India’s first 5G phone in February. Realme joined the fray a few weeks ago, announcing that it would in fact be the first to launch India’s first 5G phone, and even scheduled its launch a day before that of the iQOO device. And then Xiaomi said that it would be displaying – all together now – India’s first 5G phone at its Mi Homes. To be fair, Xiaomi had showcased its Mi Mix Alpha, which also supports 5G, before iQOO’s announcement, but it had made no disclosure about the phone being released in India at that stage.

So, we have three brands with three devices, all making claims about being the first 5G phone in India. It is a bit like those folks insisting they caught the fish that was on the display. The problem: the fish was not actually real, just like 5G in India right now.

But if 5G is not in India, why are these brands – and these are formidable ones – going to town talking about it? Well, think of that fish again. It was not a real fish. No one would ever eat it. But it was big. And impressive. Talking about catching was a matter of pride. It made the people making the claim seem important and capable.

5G is a bit like that. It might not be here in India. But it is a huge step forward in terms of technology. So supporting it is a significant achievement. And well, some wise folk clearly think that it is worth talking about. Much more than the fact that all these phones run on the new flagship processor from Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 865. Incidentally, all phones on that chip will have to support 5G, so a brand launching a phone with that chip will have no option but to support 5G, at the time of writing. But then given how futuristic 5G is, there is surely no damage done if one claims to be among the first in the country to support it! After all, there were devices supporting 4G and 3G in the country well before those networks were available. Why should 5G be treated any differently? Well, to be honest, I do not remember such a contest to be the country’s first 3G or 4G phone. And many phones that supported these networks before their launch in India did not actually go overboard promoting this support. That seems to be happening this time around.

Of course, it is entirely up to the brands to decide what they wish to promote. If it is 5G and being the first to support it, so be it. But as 5G does not actually exist, there is no way of telling just how well the phones that claim to support it will perform on it. Just as there was no way for the travellers to know which person was telling the truth about capturing the fish. A friend of mine summed it up when she put her phone on the table and said “I could claim this phone supports 5G and there is no way in which you could check it. All I have to do is have a 5G option in the connectivity menu.

Ouch. And touche.

So, let us sum this up:

Is 5G a big deal?
Yes, it is.

Is releasing a phone supporting 5G in India a big deal?
Yes, it is. It represents a big step technological step.

Is there 5G in India?
No.

So, is being the first phone to offer 5G support in India a big deal?
Well… that depends on whether you want to use existing technology or flaunt (but not use) a futuristic one.

The fact of the matter is: a phone supporting 5G in India right now is a bit like a beautifully crafted bowl for dessert. The bowl remains beautifully crafted. Just remember that you cannot serve anything in it. Not yet. If you are willing to wait, or maybe just want a bowl that looks good, go right ahead.

Contrary to what some believe, Xiaomi, Realme and iQOO are not trying to fool consumers by claiming to be the first in the 5G phone race. They are just capitalising on a human tendency to place vanity over reality. And there is a silver lining to this: if their marketing efforts do put pressure operators to bring 5G to bring 5G more quickly to India, the consumer would benefit.

Go back to that fish on display in Three Men in a Boat. It was impressive, even though it was not real. That said, the Landlord of the inn DID think it was worth showing off. And many felt it was important enough to have boasted to have caught it. 5G right now, is a bit like that.

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