The next global uptick in telecom services from today's 4G/LTE is just three years away. India is well positioned to ride the crest to massive societal change -- but only if government plays its part, instead of leaving it all to an overstretched industry
Anand Parthasarathy examines India's path to 5G and asks the Broadband Forum's CEO Robin Mersh for a wider view of how the Indian challenge is perceived by other stakeholders.
Bangalore, September 2 20127: A front page interview in a leading Indian financial daily a few days ago, has an upbeat headline: "It is the right time for 5G in India: TRAI Chairman R S Sharma". But dive into the article and you come up against an ominous quote. Asked if the Indian ecosystem is ready for 5G, the Telecom Regulatory Authority's head responds: " Certainly, why not? Why should India be behind others.... It is not government that will implement 5G. It's the industry...:"
So what will government do? It's already doing what it sees as its limited role: sell more spectrum, scoop in the money. When India last held spectrum sale in 2016, it raised Rs 65,789.12 crore in revenue, but vast swathes of the most desirable spectrum -- the premium 700MHz and 900 MHz bands -- where it hoped to attract Rs 4 lakh crore remained unsold.
Why did telecom players forsake the most efficient bands? It was just too costly. Government seemed bent on milking every last paisa from spectrum, without measuring the effect such high pricing will have on the ability of service providers to reach the country's unreached, with Internet and telecom connectivity.
And any time now government is all set to auction more spectrum, including the previously unsold bands plus new spectrum that is ideal to roll out the next generation of services on 5G. Even as the telecom industry is reeling under a combined debt of Rs 4.6 lakh crores, it will likely, be invited to spend again. They are in a Catch 22 situation: Unless the service providers are able to obtain new spectrum now, they cannot get their act ready to roll out 5G services to the global timetable -- that is sometime in 2020.As things go many of them cannot afford to acquire new spectrum this year.
Research from telecom consultant Analysys Mason entitled “The Impact of 5G on Wireline Networks in Asia-Pacific,” shows that this region will in fact lead the world in early 5G adoption: some 28 percent of Mobile Network Operators , found the report: Japan is focused on new user experiences driven by virtual reality, Korea by industrial Internet of Things, while for India and Vietnam, the main benefit will be in healthcare. 5G also provides wireless connectivity for new applications like wearables, smart homes, traffic safety/control, critical infrastructure, industry processes and very-high-speed media delivery. The government has such a huge role in healthcare as well as initiatives like smart cities, that it is willy nilly, a stake holder in 5G -- and abdicates its role at its peril, by merely looking on 5G as a cash cow due for early milking.
If the private telecom industry is unable to even buy the required spectrum, India will just slip behind its Asian neighbours. This apparent government disinterest has not gone unnoticed by observers worldwide:
In a special communication to IndiaTechOnline, Robin Mersh, CEO Broadband Forum, the global body that represents the players and users of broadband networks writes: "Everyone is aware of the potential of the Indian broadband market but as is common for all countries, challenges do exist. India is a vast country with many remote areas that historically don’t have the infrastructure to enable widespread connectivity and this can lead to increased cost. Technology options are available to remedy some of the connectivity issues, however regulations should be clear and simple allowing operators the freedom to choose technology solutions to connect consumers in the most effective way. That could really ensure India’s broadband community expands and improves."
"While operators will play their part, I do believe proactive action by government to enable the necessary infrastructure will help accelerate the time frame to put rural India on the telecom map. It will be an investment that will pay itself back over time in immeasurable ways by improving people's quality of life."
Paths to 5G rollout
The Broadband Forum suggests that there are many paths to achieve a 5G regime, smoothly, without disrupting existing channels. Once telecom players acquire the required spectrum, they will hold trials to ensure the bandwith is enough. They can migrate to 5G by one or more paths:
Convergence... smoothly morphing 4GF and 5G networks
Co-Existence.. Leverage existing infrastructure capabilities so that legacy networks co exist with new 5G nets
Interworking... Making existing gateways access either 4G or 5G cores
A combo of the three will help telecom companies roll out 5G when the time comes at least capital expenditure.
And roll out they will. It is inevitable because a nation of a billion plus will demand the superior quality of life that 5 G promises. Qualcomm Technologies, recently released a study, The 5G Economy , examining the potential economic and social impact of 5G around the world that our telecom industry bosses in government need to read. The study predicts 5G will catapult mobiles into the realm of General Purpose Technologies, like electricity and the automobile, that provide the foundation for massive innovation and benefit entire economies. The mobile phone today connects people to people and information. 5G mobiles will provide the fabric connecting people to everything. Indeed, they are saying, 5G will have as much impact on society as electricity had -- when it first came. And can India do IT?
Adds Robin Mersh: "There is no lack of creativity and innovation in the Indian broadband community. Silicon Valley would grind to a halt without them, so the effort and creativity you see abroad should be nurtured in India herself."
In other words -- Make 5G in India, for India. The timeto start is now.