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Is India 5G ready?

On 4th May 2021, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) published an official statement permitting four telecom companies in India to conduct 5G trials. This news (a much-awaited breakthrough) cleared paths for this next-gen mobile connectivity to set foot in the Indian markets. The Central Government approved applications from the private telcos Bharati Airtel, Reliance Jio Infocomm and Vi (Vodafone Idea) and state-run telco Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd. (MTNL) to run non-commercial trials of the 5G technology in the country.

Following that news, last week, we saw Bharati Airtel and Reliance Jio commence their 5G trials in Gurugam and Mumbai, respectively. But before we begin analysing and comparing, let’s first understand what 5G technology is, whether India is ready and why/how must India adopt it proactively.

What is 5G technology?

5G or the 5th generation mobile network is the latest global wireless standard after the 4G and 3G networks. It virtually connects machines, objects and devices by delivering higher multi-Gbps data speeds, increased reliability, immense network capacity, widespread availability and negligible latency. 5G also promises to support multiple connected IoT devices that were previously unachievable with 4g alone. Thus, 5G is here to redefine how we stream videos, play VR games, shop, work and communicate.

History of Mobile Technology

Source: Synopsys

Applications/Benefits Of 5G

Broadly, 5G will benefit almost every industry, business and individual by enhancing the following types of connected services:

Mobile Broadband

Apart from increased internet speed and lower latency, 5G will pave the way for new immersive experiences like AR & VR. Users can also expect reduced cost-per-bit.

Critical Communications

Due to reduced latency, 5G can prove to be a boon for mission-critical communications in various industry segments like critical infrastructure, remote learning and working, healthcare, smart cities, and so on.

Internet of Things (IoT)

5G technology will offer extremely lean and low-cost connectivity solutions. It seamlessly connects multiple embedded sensors in virtually everything while also scaling down the cost, mobility and power requirements.

Average Speeds: 3G/4G/5G

Types of 5G Technology

The different types of 5G technology comprise different frequencies of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. The portion of this whole spectrum used for wireless communications sits between 20KHz to 300Ghz (highlighted in the image).

The Electromagnetic Spectrum: Lifeblood of Wireless Communications

Of this, 5G uses three bands, classified as low, mid and high. All three have different sets of uses and limitations, as mentioned below.

Low-band 5G (under 3 GHz):

It’s the most basic type of 5G spectrum that operates closest to 4G. Yet, the speed is 10x faster than 4G. Low-band offers excellent coverage and penetration; that is, it can travel longer distances than mid and high-bands. However, its speed is lower than the two (restricted to only 100mbps in India). Therefore, the low-band spectrum is suitable for commercial cellphone users who do not have very high-speed internet demands, unlike specific industries.

Mid-Band 5G (between 3-25 GHz):

Mid-band has more capacity to transport a higher amount of data at higher speeds as compared to low-band. However, it cannot travel as far. Thus, it entails lower penetration of signals and a narrower coverage area. This category is best suited for specific industries and specialised factory units, wherein they mould networks to meet specific needs.

High-Band 5G (above 25 GHz):

The high-band spectrum provides the highest speed among all three (as high as 20gbps). But it offers the least coverage and penetration strength. These find applications in environmental monitoring, smart cities, transport infrastructure, large-scale events (with 1000s of users) and so on.

Globally, network operators launched 5G back in early 2019. Over 60 countries and 140 networks have already deployed 5G. This technology has seen quicker rollouts and adoption as compared to 4g. All mobile phone manufacturers, big or small, have already commercialised 5G phones. The consumer interest, in India too, has been sky-high. A study conducted by Ericsson ConsumerLab inferred that close to 40 million smartphone users in India are ready to switch to 5G in the first year of its implementation. It also suggested that users are willing to pay 50% more for 5G plans with better digital services. The need and demand for 5G in India are undoubtedly present but is the supply side ready? Let’s find out!

5G & India

In June 2019, the government intended to begin 5G trials in the country within 100 days, thus expecting to become early adopters of this advanced technology. However, concerns over the security and reliability of the technology and the telecom equipment (coming from China) caused a delay, only worsened by the pandemic.

Over time, the Indian Telecom market has been left with only three private players, while the rest succumbed to lower returns on investments. Among the state-run companies, only BSNL and MTNL survived but are loss-making. The only way to improve the industry’s performance is to start offering 5G to demanding customers as soon as possible. It will increase the average revenue per user, thereby benefiting the companies. Apart from the companies, it is also pertinent for the government to roll out the new technology as quickly as possible to avoid missing the 5G bus.

Given the need and urgency, the DoT permitted four network operators (Reliance Jio, Vi, Airtel and MTNL) to begin 5G trials in the country earlier in May. The providers have tied up with original equipment manufacturers and technology providers, namely, Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, and the C-DoT, barring any Chinese company.

What do these trials presuppose?

Initially, the trials have to be conducted for six months, including two months for procurement and setting up of equipment. Telecos are required to run these trials in urban, semi-urban as well as rural settings. In addition to the pre-owned ones, telcos can also use some experimental spectrum in different bands, available only during the given period. However, telecom companies cannot connect these trials with the existing networks.

The main objective of these trials includes testing the 5G spectrum characteristics (especially in the Indian context), evaluating the chosen equipment and vendors and testing indigenous technology and applications. These trials have to be strictly non-commercial, and the data so generated needs to stay in India.

In compliance with these guidelines, Bharati Airtel conducted its first trial on 14th June 2021 in Gurgaon’s Cyber Hub area. It operated in the mid-band spectrum and hit 1Gbps download speed and 100mbps upload speed. These numbers are nothing short of impressive. Airtel tied up with Ericsson 5G network gear for its 5G trial, while Jio used indigenously developed technology for its Mumbai Trial, conducted on 15th June 2021. It used a mix of the mid and high-band spectrum. For other places (Delhi, Pune and Gujarat), Jio will be using gears made by Ericsson, Samsung, and Nokia.

These trials are an indicator that the 5G technology is getting ready for launch. However, with spectrum auction delayed to 2022, insufficient fiberisation and other issues, experts opine that it will take at least a year or two before 5G is widely available in the country. Even from Airtel’s perspective, India would be ready for 5G only in 2022.

Challenges to enabling 5G in India

Undoubtedly, getting our developing country 5G ready is going to be a long haul. One major constraint is the need for dense optical fibre networks. Currently, India uses copper-based telecom networks. But 5G requires a network of dense optical fibres. The process of setting these optical fibre networks is called Fiberisation. It also entails setting towers at shorter distances, thereby creating a denser network of tower sites. Fiberisation will help to increase the capacity per tower from 200Mbps (for 2G/3G/4G) to 1-5Gbps. At present, we have hardly 30% fiberised towers (Source: ICRA). For 5G, we need to expand the same to approximately 60-70%. But according to the National Broadband Mission, 70% of towers can be fiberised only by 2024.

Another pressing constraint is that the local and state authorities levy hefty charges for laying the optical fibres and setting up the towers. Providers also face issues like delayed grants and permissions from the state and centre. These charges and delays are in contravention of the RoW (Right of Way) Policy. The RoW policy is a framework that eases the development of telecom infrastructure. It fosters coordination and resolves disputes among the parties involved. Thus, Fiberisation demands smooth functioning and coordination between the government and the RoW.

Lastly, Chinese companies like Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and ZTE Corp were the primary Telecom equipment suppliers to India. However, barring them now may have substantial cost implications. These extra costs could lead to further delays in the deployment timelines, given the telecom industry is already under financial stress.

India has already missed the early 5G bus. To accelerate the adoption and implementation process now, we must deal with these challenges at the earliest.

Final Word

All in all, the 5G technology heralds a revolution for the Indian telecom industry. The three private telcos have already expressed confidence in their preparedness for this technology. But with the spectrum auction pushed to the beginning of 2022 and other challenges, swift adoption and availability of the 5G network only seems to be a lofty goal for this second-largest telecom market in the world, India.




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