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Why 5G is the next headache for some of India’s richest men

After racking up $59 billion of net debt to survive a brutal war in the world’s second-biggest phone-services market, some of India’s billionaires are bracing for more as their next battle looms: 5G.

India seeks to raise $84 billion this year from a sale of airwaves — most of it for the latest technology tipped to revolutionize connectivity — posing a conundrum for the carriers controlled by tycoons including Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s wealthiest man. The investment would mean more borrowings, but the reward could be revenue streams never seen before.

Operators may soon decide how much more pain they can endure for a high-speed wireless network that can offer better user experience in streaming, gaming, and entertainment in a market where Netflix Inc. to Amazon.com Inc. are making inroads. With applications ranging from manufacturing to education and health care, 5G could be the catalyst for India’s digital economy that has the potential to reach $1 trillion by 2025, according to a report by Deloitte.

‘Competitive Parity’
“Any player missing on the 5G service offering is likely to see erosion of market share,” said Alok Shende, a Mumbai-based principal analyst for telecom at Ascentius Insights. “There’s all the more case for maintaining competitive parity to remain in the game. Offering a forward path to customers is important.”

Bharti AirtelNSE 2.18 % Ltd. and Vodafone Idea Ltd., the two biggest carriers, didn’t respond to request for comments on their 5G plans, while Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd. said it won’t comment on the spectrum auction.

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