On the bumpy road to 5G

5G-Shutterstock (File) Representational image

The headline of a front page interview in a leading Indian financial daily recently read: "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 is the industry."

So what will the government do? It is already doing what it sees as its limited role—sell more spectrum, scoop in the money. When India last held a spectrum sale in 2016, it raised Rs 65,789.12 crore in revenue, but vast swathes of the most desirable spectrum—the premium 700 MHz 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. The 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 areas untouched by with internet and telecom connectivity.

And any time now, the 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 service providers obtain new spectrum now, they cannot get their act ready to roll out 5G services in tune with the global timetable; that is sometime in 2020. And as things are at present, many of them cannot afford to acquire new spectrum this year.

Research from telecom consultant Analysys Mason titled The Impact of 5G on Wireline Networks in Asia-Pacific shows that this region will in fact lead the world in early 5G adoption. According to the study, 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 and 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. Robin Mersh CEO of Broadband Forum, the global non-profit body that represents the layers and developers of broadband networks said: "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. 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 bandwidth is enough. They can migrate to 5G by one or more paths.

 1. Convergence— smoothly morphing 4GF and 5G networks

 2. Coexistence—leverage existing infrastructure capabilities so that legacy networks co exist with new 5G nets

 3. 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. And roll out they will. It is inevitable because a nation of a billion plus will demand the superior quality of life that 5G 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. 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?

"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," Mersh said. In other words – Make 5G in India, for India. The time to start is now.

What is 5G

5G is the name for the next big leap in mobile connectivity. No one knows how fast 5G will be, and that’s because 5G doesn’t technically exist yet. Many telecom players and mobile phone makers have been trying out their 5G products. Samsung claims it has says it has achieved 7.5 GBPS while Huawei says it has tested 3.6 GBPS. Nokia, which unlike the other two, is today a telecom transport player and no longer a handset maker claims to have achieved 10 GBPS. Nokia and BSNL are already working together to accelerate the development of a 5G ecosystem.

The International Telecommunication Union ( ITU) has mandated that any network will need to meet these specifications before it has a right to the 5G title—20 GBPS peak download rate and 10 GBPS peak upload rate, which translates to 100 MBPS user experienced download rate and 50 MBPS user experienced upload rate. Hey! That is not much different from what 4G ( also known as LTE) providers are promising us today. True but when have you actually experienced such speeds on your 4G dongle? Unless you are in Korea or Japan? With 5G we may finale experience these speeds. A movie that takes 15 minutes to download today with take perhaps 2 minutes with 5G.

5G on mobile will also massively improve latency—the time it takes for whatever you’re trying to download to actually start downloading. 5G will have barely any lag, which means a lot of the computing power currently in your smartphone can be shifted to the cloud. This would extend your phone's battery life and make apps and services more powerful. Worldwide 5G is expected to reach consumers starting in 2020.

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