How the 5G race is taking shape in India?
By Ms. Aarthi Raghavan | October 25 2020, 10:50 AM SGT
The adoption of 5G is gathering pace globally. According to Viavi Solutions, a California-based network testing company, 5G is partially available in 378 cities across 34 countries. The technology is expected to accelerate developments in smart cities, connected cars, industry 4.0, virtual reality, remote surgery and much more. It will deliver flexible and scalable connectivity in a range of environments. But it is precisely because it connects everything that it has become a new tool for exercising power. Any country that dominates this technology is expected to gain a huge leap over others in terms of strategic economic and political influence. The recent US sanctions to restrict Huawei’s access to semiconductors exemplifies this growing power struggle. But, it is also an undeniable fact that as of October 2019, Huawei had already been allowed in more than 50 countries.
Until January this year, India too was open to the idea of allowing Huawei and ZTE, another major Chinese company, to undertake 5G trials in the country. However, the border tensions ensued between the two nations in June and the Government of India decided to take a strong stance against Chinese aggression at all levels, including in the technology space. In July, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) recommended keeping Huawei and ZTE out of the national 5G plans. Around the same time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promoted the idea of a ‘self-reliant’ India in order to help the country build back better after the pandemic. The government is now encouraging the development and deployment of indigenous solutions that are free of Chinese technology. Interestingly though, India continues to remain open to investments from western countries and other non-Chinese eastern neighbors like Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Currently, Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone-Idea are the three dominant private telecom players in the country. Reliance, headed by Mukesh Ambani, announced earlier this year that it is ready to launch homegrown 5G network in India, without a single Chinese component. The company recently partnered with Qualcomm, a San Diego based semiconductor firm, to test 5G in India with speeds successfully reaching 1 Gbps. Similarly, Airtel and Vodafone-Idea have both partnered with European equipment makers to be 5G ready. Taking note of these developments, the Standing Parliamentary Committee on IT has recently called upon private and public sector stakeholders, including DoT, to discuss India’s 5G readiness.
Interestingly, a high-level 5G Forum, formed by DoT in 2017, has acknowledged that an enabling policy environment is crucial for the technology to truly benefit Indian consumers. However, two key issues continue to hinder the faster development of 5G in India. Firstly, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has set the price for spectrum in the 3400-3800 MHz band at US$ 70 million. Experts observe the price to higher than countries like Italy (US$ 26 million), South Korea (US$ 18 million), UK (US$ 10 million and Australia (US$ 5 million). Airtel and Vodafone-Idea, who are already burdened by debt, perceive that such high prices will make it difficult for them to participate in the auction. Reliance too has contended that its capacity will be limited as a result of it. While the industry has been requesting TRAI to reconsider its prices, the regulator has been defending it.
The second key issue is the overall development of internet infrastructure in India. The country is currently the second largest internet market after China with nearly 687.6 million users as of January 2020. While the country’s average monthly mobile data usage per user is the highest in the world, it has the lowest mobile data prices. The launch of the Digital India initiative has significantly enhanced government efforts to improve IT infrastructure in the country. E-governance initiatives have been extending public services to the last mile, taking advantage of the fast-growing mobile penetration rates among a young population. Moreover, the government has been actively partnering with private players to achieve quality and scale of services. But, despite growing efforts, experts observe that there are still gaps that need to be addressed to make emerging technologies accessible and affordable to every citizen.
Lastly, it is crucial to note that only low and mid-band frequencies are available for 5G in India. Director General of Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), Rajan Mathews, has observed that high price and limited availability of radio spectrum will delay 5G rollout in India for another 5 years. And even if there is a chance for the network to be launched by mid-2021, telecom companies need to be able to afford the spectrum and perform several tests before being able to launch 5G commercially. As a result, Ericsson, a Swedish network equipment vendor, has observed that India may officially be ready to launch 5G only in 2022.
Image credits: The Tide