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Cover Feature

Published on: Oct. 6, 2022, 5:43 p.m.
India rings in 5G
  • 5G services will take time to mature and will initially be available only in a handful of cities

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

Finally, it’s here. On 1 October, after several policy snafus, infrastructural handicaps and a delayed dry run, 5G mobile telecom services were launched in eight cities of India. The importance that India accords to the development was evident in Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurating the services to coincide with the sixth edition of the India Mobile Congress, the premier industry event. Industry leaders Mukesh Ambani of Reliance and his son Akash, Sunil Bharti Mittal of Bharti Airtel and Kumar Mangalam Birla of Vodafone Idea were present at the launch event in New Delhi. In the next few months and years, 5G services will progressively cover the rest of the country.

As 5G gains traction, Indian telecom giants are expected to invest billions of dollars in the development of advanced infrastructure. According to a report from the London-based Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), the investment could touch $19.5 billion by 2025.

Such a humungous investment, says K Rajaraman, telecom secretary, will spawn thousands of fresh job opportunities in the market, requiring suitable skilling of manpower in new technologies like Augmented Reality, New Reality and Internet of Things. Even the software upgrade (from 4G to 5G) will be a resource and manpower-intensive exercise. For instance, new apps will have to be developed.

On the whole, 5G could benefit the Indian economy by more than 0.6 per cent of the GDP forecast for the year 2040. This would reflect the large number of 5G uses that will be implemented in the main sectors of the economy. The benefits are expected to be released in new applications in the manufacturing sector as well as the retail, ICT and agricultural sectors, education, health, transport, traffic management, smart cities, smart homes, and multiple applications of IoT (Internet of Things). “The launch of 5G services will enable the country to become a $5 trillion economy in the next few years, with a trillion-dollar contribution by the digital economy,” says Kumar Mangalam Birla.

User experience

For the ordinary user, a lot is expected in terms of enhanced experience. Experts believe that 5G technology will ‘revolutionise’ telecom through improved user experience in terms of data download rates (expected to be 10 times that of 4G), up to three times greater spectrum efficiency, and ultra-low latency (network delay). Users will not be required to switch SIM cards when the network is available for them. Once 5G is fully operational, phone junkies can download a full-length movie in a matter of seconds on a 5G phone.

Ericsson, the Swedish telecom company, has released a study: ‘Promise of 5G’ which found that consumer 5G readiness is already high in India. Also, the intent to upgrade to 5G is two times greater among urban Indian smartphone users than it is in markets like the United States and the United Kingdom, where 5G networks have already rolled out.

According to the study, India witnessed a three-fold increase in the number of smartphone users who own a 5G handset over the past two years. More than 100 million users with 5G-ready smartphones want to upgrade to a 5G subscription in 2023 and more than half of them are open to upgrading to a higher tier data plan in the next 12 months.

  • Most of Jio's 5G is developed in India, and hence carries the stamp of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. Our 5G and 5G-enabled digital solutions can bring affordable and high-quality education and skill development within the reach of common Indians

    Mukesh Ambani, Chairman & Managing Director, Reliance Industries

This means more business for our service providers. “The transition to 5G provides an opportunity to service providers to strengthen their position in the Indian market. More innovative experiences need to be bundled to meet the expectations of early adopters to successfully monetise 5G,” says Jasmeet Sethi, head of Ericsson ConsumerLab.

A leading, emerging tech

There is emerging evidence to justify this statement. A study by Ernst & Young has found that as an emerging technology, 5G is already showing the potential of attracting higher investments by enterprises than even AI (artificial intelligence), blockchain and quantum computing. The EY survey found that almost three-fourths (70 per cent) of enterprises in India are willing to make the highest investments in 5G in the next three years compared to other emerging technologies.

Companies in various sectors other than telecommunication enterprises want to tap into the benefits as well. Out of a total of 56 enterprises factored in for the EY survey, 18 per cent have already started investing in 5G technology. Twenty per cent of all enterprises surveyed plan to invest in the emerging technology in the next year. Half of the enterprises plan to invest in 5G in the next 2-3 years.

A similar number of enterprises are exploring the relationship of 5G with other emerging technologies, including AI and cloud computing. Among the beneficial vectors of the 5G technology, AR/VR, live-streaming, and cloud gaming emerged as the top 5G uses.

Societal benefits

As for the Modi government, it is eyeing the new economic opportunities and societal benefits that 5G can unleash, given its potential for being a transformational force for Indian society. The government believes that, apart from enhanced mobile broadband, Industry 4.0 will drive the adoption of 5G.  Industry 4.0 refers to the trend of automation and digitalisation of manufacturing processes by leveraging information and communication technologies.

An exultant Ministry of Communications, headed by ex-bureaucrat Ashwini Vaishnaw, recently even stuck its neck out with the calculation that the cumulative economic impact of 5G on India could reach $450 billion by 2035.

Prashant Singhal, Emerging Markets Technology, Media & Entertainment, and Telecom Leader, EY, says: “5G in India will transform the socioeconomic fabric as well as society at large. By enabling high-speed broadband connectivity for people, it will bridge the digital divide and promote newer avenues of economic growth. The transition to 5G will unlock new use cases and revenue streams through innovative business models.”

In August this year, the country’s biggest ever spectrum auction ended, with bids upwards of Rs1.5 lakh crore coming in after seven days of bidding spread over 40 rounds, belying initial expectations that the auction process would be wrapped up in under three days.

A total of 51.2GHz of spectrum was sold, of the total 72GHz that was up for grabs – close to 71 per cent. At the time, Vaishnaw said the total spectrum sold was “good enough” for covering all circles in the country, estimating there would be “good coverage” of 5G in the next 2-3 years.

  • Bharti Airtel is working with speed and courage to bring 5G services to many cities by March 2023, and the entire country by March 2024

    Sunil Mittal, Founder and chairperson, Bharti Enterprises

Jio’s edge

Since then, telecom operators have revealed how they plan to roll out 5G services on their networks. Reliance Jio, which was the top spender at this year’s 5G spectrum auctions, bidding an amount of more than Rs88,000 crore, said that it will roll out high-speed mobile internet services on its 5G network by Diwali this year in metro cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. Mukesh Ambani, Chairman and Managing Director, Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), says that by December 2023, the company will deliver Jio 5G “to every town, every taluka, and every tehsil of our country”.

Bharti Airtel, the second highest spender in the auction, launched 5G telecom services in eight cities, including four metros, on the day of the inaugural function. Though users of Apple’s iPhone and the large device ecosystem of Samsung were not able to access the high-speed services on the opening day as the smartphone companies need to carry out testing and a software upgrade, the telco is hopeful of covering the entire country by March 2024. 

The third-highest bidder in the auctions, Vodafone Idea (Vi) is still to officially announce its 5G launch plans. The company is said to be leveraging the global experience of its promoter, the UK-based Vodafone Group, which has proven expertise in deploying 5G in many markets.

The fourth participant in the spectrum race, Adani Data Networks, a subsidiary of the Adani Group, has said that it will not offer consumer-led 5G services for now, and only focus on enterprise use cases. In the spectrum auction, it acquired spectrum only in the 26GHz band which is best suited for business-level use cases of 5G.

Some experts believe that the advantages of standalone 5G architecture, as well as the largest and best mix of spectrum and carrier aggregation technology, mean that Jio 5G will be able to offer an unparalleled combination of coverage, capacity, quality and affordability. With standalone 5G, experts believe Jio can deliver new and powerful services like low latency, massive machine-to-machine communication, 5G voice, edge computing and network slicing, and the metaverse (see box).

Mahesh Uppal, director, ComFirst India, a company that specialises in the telecom regulatory space, recalls: “Jio’s entry and growth also helped in making transformational changes not only to the telecom sector, but to the gig economy as well. But for its services, we wouldn’t have seen this kind of a shake-up — fall in tariffs, expansion of services and greater access of e-commerce, among others — in the country.”

But Uppal also believes that it will be wrong to underestimate Bharti Airtel (which is building on its 4G infra to launch 5G) and its contribution to the telecom sector. To match Jio’s strategy of purchasing large quantities of low-band spectrum, Airtel will use all the tricks in the trade to catch up by using cheaper non-standalone tech.

Another intense race for customers is in the offing. While Airtel is offering 5G services at 4G rates now, Jio has promised to be ‘affordable’. Tariff hikes are inevitable only when 5G gains popularity.

  • We will leverage our strong presence in rural India, our enterprise customers, our technology partners, and the global expertise of the Vodafone group for progressively rolling out our 5G network and services in the coming period

    Kumar Mangalam Birla,Chairman, Aditya Birla Group

Late start

In India, 5G didn’t happen out of the blue. The process wasn’t seamless. India has been a late starter. (China, for instance, rolled out 5G for commercial use across 50 cities in 2019.) In fact, the government began tinkering with the idea only in 2017 when it set up a high-level forum for 5G, headed by secretary, DoT.

The objective: to position India as a globally synchronised participant in the design, development and manufacturing of 5G-based technology, products and applications. The forum was to finalise the Report on 5G Vision, Mission and Goals by March 2018 but it came out with a roadmap only in 2020.

It took more than a year, till May 2021, for the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to give permission to Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) to conduct trials for the use and applications of 5G technology in India.

DoT had allocated the 5G trial spectrum to Airtel in four Indian telecom circles including Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, and Delhi in the 3500MHz, 28GHz and 700MHz bands. Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea (Vi) were allotted spectrums in the 700MHz, 3.5GHz and 26GHz bands. MTNL was the fourth applicant TSP.

With Huawei out of the picture because of its links with Communist warlords in Beijing (see box), the TSPs had to tie up with original equipment manufacturers and technology providers like Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and C-DOT. Reliance Jio began conducting trials using its own indigenous technology.

Airtel started testing its 5G network in Gurgaon’s Cyber Hub area. The telco operated in the middle band spectrum of 3500Mhz with Ericson 5G network gear. The 5G network of Bharti Airtel was able to deliver a throughput of over 1 Gbps.

The duration of the trials was for a period of 6 months, which included a time period of 2 months for the procurement and setting up of the equipment. As of January 2021, 5G trials by TSPs have not been permitted by DoT. 

However, the full impact of the 5G experience was to be available to select customers more than a year later, when adequate spectrum was made available to TSPs and government approvals were received.

Tharoor panel

A lot of ground had to be covered. One just has to recall the findings and recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology, headed by Shashi Tharoor, on India’s preparedness for 5G to get an idea of where we once were. 

In its 2021 report, the Committee noted that 118 operators across 59 countries (including the US, China, and the UK) had deployed 5G though, on a limited scale so far. But in India, the commercial rollout of 5G was yet to happen. 

The Committee highlighted a number of gaps in preparatory work for the launch of 5G services in India, including inadequate availability of spectrum, high spectrum prices, poor development of use cases for 5G, low fiberisation (connectivity with optical fibre) and deficient backhaul capacity.

Hence a number of issues had to be tackled. First, the allocation of new bands of spectrum was crucial for the rollout of 5G. The auction of 5G spectrum was kept pending as wrangling broke out between the TSPs and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) over the reserve price.

  • Rajaraman: expecting a job boom

    Rajaraman: expecting a job boom

The Tharoor-led Committee noted the concerns of the telecom companies that the reserve price set by the TRAI for 5G spectrum (Rs492 crore per MHz) was exorbitantly high. The Committee observed that, considering the financial stress in the sector and the fact that the 5G ecosystem was still to be developed, a high reserve price might adversely impact the ability of service providers to roll out the same.

Spectrum price wrangle

Also, based on the then availability of spectrum, approximately 50MHz spectrum per operator could be ensured. This was substantially lower than the global average of about 100MHz per operator. In case of 4G too, the average spectrum per operator in India is around one-fourth of the global average.

The Committee observed there was an urgent need for an audit of all allocated spectrum for detecting underutilisation and subsequently rationalising the allocation of spectrum.  Also, the licensing policy for spectrum for industry and captive uses needed to be streamlined.  This would aid in attracting manufacturers to set up a base in India.

True, events like the Covid-19 outbreak forced the government to put off the spectrum auction. Also, the government’s policy on spectrum was aimed at maximising revenue.

Another issue was telecom equipment. India is greatly import-dependent in this respect. This became clear later from the import orders worth billions of dollars that Indian telcos placed with western vendors like Nokia and Ericsson to get their networks going. The Tharoor panel has rightly noted that 5G as such presented an opportunity for the promotion of domestic manufacturing as well as indigenous technology due to the changed nature of network components as compared to 3G and 4G. 

There would also be a multifold increase in demand for telecom equipment to provide ubiquitous connectivity. An ecosystem should quickly be developed for complete manufacturing rather than just assembly, as manufacturing gives higher value addition.

The telecom industry was also caught in a raging controversy regarding the use of 5Gi, an indigenously developed sub-standard of 5G. A joint collaboration between IIT Madras, IIT Hyderabad, TSDSI, and the Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology, 5Gi was aimed at improving rural coverage of 5G. Though approved by the UN-affiliated International Telecommunication Union, private telcos had raised concerns about its interoperability and the high cost of network deployment.

While the makers of the standard say that it will require only minor changes in the network to deploy 5Gi, private telcos and some major vendors allege that 5Gi demands major hardware changes. The DoT, while releasing the spectrum for the 5G trial, had asked the service providers to conduct a trial of 5Gi. However, none of the telcos ran a test of this technology. 

Infra not in place

Not all the infrastructure and policy prerequisites were in place when the official call was taken on the date of the commercial launch. Looking ahead, the road to a smooth rollout is fraught with challenges, the most important one being infrastructure deployment. 5G networks require robust infrastructure to manage the huge data traffic involved.

According to industry assessments, at least 70 per cent of towers need to be fiberised from the current level of 33 per cent for a successful launch of 5G. In India, less than 7 per cent of households are connected through fibre. 

  • Vaishnaw: huge economic impact

The Tharoor Committee recommended that fibre should be accorded the status of essential national infrastructure. It observed that delays and costs associated with the right of way permissions need to be reduced to support fiberisation. Sharing of fibre infrastructure across government and private players should be promoted. 

A single window clearance of grant of permission for fibre laying should be considered. This was not followed up. It was only in August this year that the government amended the right of way rules, making it easier for telcos to set up towers and optic fibre on street furniture by paying minimal charges.

Experts believe that 5G will make a strong case if the service is bundled with a 5G-rich app and not just better speed technology. Again, the government has only recently set up a 5G testbed to enable start-ups and industry players to test and validate their products locally and reduce dependence on foreign facilities.

Finally, as the EY report surmised, Indian enterprises need to focus on cross-industry collaboration to unlock the full potential of the technology. While this is now happening, it is yet to bloom optimally.

That being said, don’t expect a countrywide seamless availability of the network any time soon. 5G services will take time to mature and will initially be available only in a handful of cities. But once it gains traction, the sky is the limit. Of course, after 5G, there will be 6G.

  • Sethi: more business opportunities

    Sethi: more business opportunities

Standalone vs non-standalone

  The two most common configurations for 5G networks are standalone and non-standalone.  The standalone (SA) version of the technology, dubbed ‘real 5G’ by some over-exuberant marketers, comes with new core network technology, promising benefits its older, non-standalone (NSA) sibling cannot support.

However, the new variant remains conspicuous by its absence in many countries as in the non-standalone architecture, operators can maximise the utilisation of their existing network infrastructure with relatively lower investment.

In the standalone option, which Jio has chosen for India, the 5G network operates using specialised equipment and coexists with the present 4G network. Jio has committed to investing Rs2 lakh crore in its standalone 5G network.

The non-standalone networks, being deployed by Bharti Airtel and Vodafone India, are substantially less expensive and take considerably less time to provide services than standalone networks since they are built on existing infrastructure.

Most smartphones today can connect to non-standalone 5G networks, which are basically 5G airwaves broadcast over 4G networks, and will require software upgrades from their manufacturers to connect to standalone networks.

State-owned telecom operator Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) could launch 5G services on its network by August next year as the government is keen to have four competitors in the market – three private players and a public sector one. BSNL’s 5G will be based on non-standalone architecture.

  • Uppal: don’t underestimate Airtel

    Uppal: don’t underestimate Airtel

Keeping China out

Chinese telecom gear-makers were not permitted to participate in the 5G roll-out, thanks to pressure from the United States and the Doklam incident, the border standoff between Indian and Chinese troops near Sikkim.

Given that the Chinese accounted for 20 per cent of India’s 4G gear market in India and Huawei’s position as a global 5G leader, Chinese vendors could have cornered a sizable share of the gear market for the next-generation networks. But that was not to be. The gainers have been western telecom equipment majors Nokia, Ericsson, and Samsung.

The US has been lobbying with Western countries as well as its other friends to shut China out from 5G because of accusations of cyber-attacks and spying. China’s biggest tech company, Huawei, has seen its 5G business prospects being blunted across the world. Being barred from India translates into a considerable loss for Chinese firms as Indian telcos have signed multi-year 5G equipment deals worth billions of dollars.

Keeping out Chinese vendors will have an impact on Indian 5G networks because Huawei equipment tends to be less expensive than western alternatives. However, the Modi government and telcos are willing to absorb this impact owing to security concerns.

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