Opinion: Why India's 5G journey could be a bumpy one in the short-term

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India's richest man Mukesh Ambani declared that Reliance Jio would pave the fifth generation communication technology (5G) journey starting 2021. None would question this statement as the company today boasts of the financial muscle to achieve it. What bears questioning is the alacrity of the federal government to create policy-level changes that enable its introduction. 

For starters, India's top two mobile service providers, Jio and Airtel, have already struck a note of discord, hours after Ambani's assertion at the India Mobile Congress, an event attended by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While Ambani believes the country is ready to launch 5G networks, Airtel's Sunil Mittal says it would take at least 2-3 years for it. 

It could be a Jio monopoly

Ironically, both seem to agree that for 5G to kick-off, the federal government needs to enable policy-level changes almost immediately. Of course, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of such policies, Ambani and Mittal disagree. While Airtel believes that spectrum costs in India continue to be exorbitant, Ambani is silent on the issue, focusing instead on Jio's indigenous 5G solution. 

Ambani said Jio would pioneer 5G revolution in the second half of 2021 on the back of network, hardware and technology components indigenously developed by the company. Though he was silent about the details, reports suggested that Jio has joined hands with Qualcomm in this space. 

Moreover, the company has announced its own brand of smartphones, besides also entering the fast-growing mobile gaming segment in India by participating in an eSport tournament. Also, the company already boasts of 40 million customers to be head and shoulders above competitors Airtel and Vi. 

Given the financial muscle that Reliance Jio holds, thanks to the spate of investments that it received via its telecom and retail ventures, the company can afford both the spectrum costs and infrastructure enhancements. Of course, the question is if they can do it speedily enough.

Corporate will vs. bureaucratic wont

However, even if Jio is ready with the infrastructure, there are a lot of policy level changes that the government would require to bring in, starting from the auction of 5G spectrum. All that we know currently is that a 4G auction could happen next March. Fitch Ratings, in its latest outlook for the telecom sector, believes a 4G auction would be a big mistake. 

Why so? Quite simply, the rating agency believes that such an auction could delay 5G auctions if the government went back to renew spectrum in the 800/900 Mhz bands in some states. What could be even more worrisome for the government and the consumer is the warning that Airtel and Vodafone Idea (Vi) may not have the financial muscle to participate in the 5G auction. 

A source at the Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI), an apex body working on policy initiatives and liaison, told us that capital investments required to set up the digital infrastructure for a 5G rollout is the biggest hurdle. Besides Reliance Jio, others in the fray need some financial leeway from the government in terms of tax concessions and change of archaic laws that saw two of the three service providers pile up massive losses.

It boils down to spectrum affordability

The only way customers at the grass-root levels can get optimum benefits from 5G is when the spectrum is priced at an affordable level so that service providers can also invest in top quality networks to support the various applications that are being spoken about. "The difference between 4G and 5G is that while the former allowed a human and machine to interact, the latter is about machines talking to each other with virtually no latency," says another source at the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), another industry association. 

In case some of you are wondering how life could change once the network gets upgraded to 5G, here are some examples that aren't remotely connected to the 5G-enabled smartphone. It could be a doctor doing a CT scan remotely or users watching AR/VR based entertainment or even a factory using instant data to tweak their manufacturing processes or capabilities. 

And all of this would be possible only when the networks on which 5G runs is top notch, as total absence of latency is what makes this technology unique. How does one define this? Take the case of the human brain that takes about 10 milliseconds to process information. Now, on a 5G network, the machines would take a tenth of this. So, one can have driverless cars avoiding obstacles almost instantaneously! 

How is 5G different?

Globally, countries such as the United States, Japan, China, parts of Europe and Australia have already launched 5G networks. Trade issues between China and other countries may have cost players like network players Huawei lots of business, but Ericcson, Nokia and Qualcomm have stepped up their act to provide the necessary infrastructure.

One of the areas where telecom providers need to focus is the fiberization of their network. Current capacity of each tower site stands at about 1GBPS for services ranging from 2G to 4G, while in the future this could grow up to 10-20 GBPS when 5G kicks in. Since traditional microwaves can only provide speeds between 500 MBPS to 1 GBPS, conversion to E-band becomes urgent. 

E-band microwaves can provide between 1-2.5 GBPS based on allocation of spots and if India is to run 5G across the country, it would require 10-20 GBPS speeds, for which fiber tower sites across the country would become a prerequisite. Currently, only one-in-five towers are fiberized, accounting or just 20% of the total. To get optimal 4G, this needs to grow to 40% while for 5G, the number would be closer to 80%. 

For this to happen, the federal government would have to take up the matter of right-of-way clearances with the states. As of 2019, only 13 Indian states had aligned with the tower policies issued by the federal Department of Telecommunication. For 5G to spread across the whole of India, the Modi government would have to make telecom a central subject and make a set of rules that the states are forced to comply with. Else, one may witness more delays.

Finally, there is also the question of having several more Data Centers in India, given that the onset of 5G network would generate humongous levels of data that require instant processing for all those IoT devices and smart homes to function as they should. 

As for smartphones that are 5G enabled, purchasing one at this moment could be useless  for two reasons (a) it may take at least a year for the network to upgrade and (b) by that time, you could lay your hands on better handsets.

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Raj Narayan

A media veteran who turned a gadget lover fairly recently. An early adopter of Apple products, Raj has an insatiable curiosity for facts and figures which he puts to use in research. He engages in active sport and retreats to his farm during his spare time.