In 1895, India made one of the most valuable contributions to the field of communications. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose demonstrated radio communication with millimetre wavelengths, which fall in the 30GHz to 300GHz spectrum range. That millimetre wave is now the backbone of 5G. More than 125 years later, communication technology is turning a new leaf with 5G. Yet again, India is set to make another gigantic contribution.

India can be a strong global 5G provider

Many people will think this is an absurd statement, given 5G hasn’t seen the light of day in India. While it is true that India is behind the curve, it has a perfect opportunity to stride ahead. It has done this in the past. The country lagged behind its developed counterparts by almost 4 years in rolling out the 4G networks. Despite that, it has higher 4G penetration than many of them. India also has the lowest mobile data cost per gigabyte in the world. The country is not only a fast adopter, it also can make wireless technology all-pervasive.

India has everything in its favour to be a 5G enabler:

1) Solid local manufacturing players for 5G stack right from the software, hardware, optical, semiconductors & chips to large scale network integration capabilities.

2) A buoyant startup ecosystem comprising enterprising and innovative fabless and chip design startups.

3) A global talent pool that has churned out some life-transforming applications across sectors.

4) No weight of legacy systems so the country can leapfrog directly to the latest edge networks.

India needs to do some work

While India has quite a few things going in its favour, it has more than just wrinkles to iron out. The country needs to build a favourable 5G ecosystem that will create newer business opportunities through ground-breaking technologies and innovative business models. This can be done by:

Building the new architecture

Speed is not the only difference between 4G and 5G. 4G is only about connectivity. 5G, on the other hand, adds high-powered, ubiquitous and cheap computing to connectivity. The combination of connectivity and compute brings in richer customer experiences in the form of augmented reality, efficient automation and much more. Therefore, 5G requires a new network architecture that is open source, virtualised and disaggregated. The telcos and infrastructure owners in India need to transform their legacy networks through new virtualised tech to deliver ultra-low latency and unlimited data capacity.

Democratising the Spectrum battle

India needs to resolve the 5G spectrum issues to ensure its 5G dream comes true. Spectrum pricing is one of the first things that need to be addressed. Telcos have expressed their displeasure at the reserve price of ₹492 crores per MHz in the 3.5 GHz bands. An already cash-strapped and Capex-prudent telecom sector may find it difficult to participate. A middle ground needs to be found by TRAI and telcos on the spectrum prices.

The availability of different spectrum bands is another factor behind quick 5G deployment. TRAI, India’s telecom regulator, has so far earmarked the 3.4-3.6 GHz (mid-band spectrum) for 5G services. There is a need to introduce the Millimetre-wave spectrum between 30 GHz and 300 GHz. This band is ideal for introducing 5G and being used by many countries. The government should play a role of a facilitator and make important calls on the availability and pricing of the spectrum.

Private Spectrum is key to private enterprises owning their own small band spectrum inside their premises and local areas to have a local 5G/Wifi networks towards democratising the spectrum ownership and 5G network rollout.

Devising a Fibre strategy

India needs to make a solid investment in fibre backhaul capabilities to support the inordinate amount of data transfer 5G would bring. The country’s fibre kilometre (fkm) per capita is much less in comparison to several other countries such as China (0.87), Japan (1.3), and the U.S. (1.7). The telcos and infrastructure owners will need to make investments in optical fibre and related technologies.

Governments should lead the way in infrastructure investments

Rolling out a network for 5G is more than expensive. With 5G, it is not just building a layer on top of an existing network but laying the groundwork for something new altogether. 5G networks are slated to be introduced with a large number of smaller cells and new radio components. These need heavy capital infrastructure investment upfront. Telcos need strong government-led investments for building the 5G infrastructure. To achieve this kind of investment, the government can look at alternate models similar to what has been done by NHAI in highways. These new-age information highways can be invested and monetised in a very similar fashion as the physical roads and highways network.

It is time the world witnesses India-driven 5G

India holds the key to unlocking the 5G’s benefits to the world. Despite jumping the 5G bandwagon a little late, India has realised the importance of technology and made crucial investments in its developments. However, to reach the stars, we need to keep investing in and trusting 5G.

Views are personal. The author is Group CEO, Sterlite Technologies Ltd.

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