Author: V Sridhar, IIIT Bangalore
India has much to gain from 5G not only due to the high speed data transfers it provides but also from the way the technology will impact agriculture, education, healthcare, transportation and other services. The technology is expected to increase global GDP by about US$2 trillion in key sectors such as healthcare, retail, mobility and manufacturing alone. But the road to 5G rollout is far from smooth.
After a tumultuous few years, the telecom sector in India is bracing up for the deployment and adoption of 5G network services. While the government announced the formation of a high-level panel to evaluate and approve roadmaps and action plans for rolling out 5G technology in India, it is time to assess the prerequisites and challenges for such a roll-out.
Radio spectrum enables communication between mobile handsets and networks, and it is an essential scarce resource for the operators to provide communication services. In India, the roadmap for the allocation of radio spectrum for providing 5G services remains unclear. There are three spectrum bands that are critical for promoting 5G services across the country. Out of these, the controversial 700 MHz band remained unsold in the last spectrum auctions that were held in 2016 and February 2021, due to high reserve prices fixed by the government. Though the mid-band spectrum (3.3–3.6 GHz) is scheduled for auction early next year, the amount of spectrum to be put on block will depend on the corresponding release by the Department of Space.
Meanwhile, the 60 GHz band — which is superior for high-capacity and micro-scale networking in 5G — is yet to be cleared by the Department of Telecommunications. There is an urgent need to revise the National Frequency Allocation Plan 2018 to pave way for the release of the appropriate spectrum bands for 5G deployment.
There are also questions about the banning of certain equipment manufacturers, such as Huawei, from participating in 5G trials in India for security reasons. The Chinese equipment maker was a major supplier of network equipment to Indian telecom operators, mainly due to cost arbitrage. Would this ban affect the telecommunications companies in India from migrating their networks to 5G? Though Huawei had a reasonable market share in the Indian market, European vendors such as Ericsson and Nokia have also played significant roles.
There is also a move by telecommunications companies towards open Radio Access Network (Open RAN) architecture which equipment makers such as Nokia are also supporting. The key concept of Open RAN is ‘opening’ the protocols and interfaces between the various building blocks (radios, hardware and software) in the RAN. The O-RAN Alliance has defined open interface specifications for interoperability across devices and vendor systems, which reduces the dependency of the telecommunications companies on specific network equipment manufacturers and their proprietary equipment.
With more software components replacing hardware in O-RAN architecture, there is an opportunity for software start-ups in India to design and develop indigenous 5G gear in tune with the ‘self-reliant India’ mission of the government.
There is also the task of complementing carrier mobile broadband networks that operate on licensed frequency bands with emerging high-fidelity WiFi networks that operate in unlicensed spectrum bands. The telecommunications companies have realized the importance of integrating their cellular networks with WiFi networks to improve quality of service. Though not advertised widely, most of the telecommunications companies in India provide services such as Voice over WiFi to piggyback on WiFi networks to provide superior voice quality where the mobile network signals are weak, especially inside buildings.
The government has also launched WiFi Access Network Interface architecture that promotes seamless mobility, access and payment for growing public WiFi in the country. The Telecommunications Standards Development Society of India is also working towards the adoption of 6 GHz for a license exempt band (as approved in many countries) for possible deployment of WiFi 6 hot spots, which can greatly complement mobile broadband connectivity.
The government’s intention to recalibrate regulatory levies — such as annual spectrum usage charges, annual license fees, and the recent four-year moratorium on the payment of pending regulatory fees — should also provide some financial relief to the stressed telecommunications sector.
The sector that once witnessed hyper-competition with nine to ten operators in each license service area has seen consolidation and is now down to four operators. Coupled with easing regulatory burdens, and a well-planned forthcoming spectrum auction, there is an expected increase in industry efficiency, leading to the provision of good quality mobile broadband across the country.
V Sridhar is Professor at the Centre for IT and Public Policy at The International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore.
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