How will a 5G network power the future?

The government plans to start trials for next generation cellular tech this year. Is India prepared?

The story so far: On Monday, June 3, Union Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad announced that the government will be holding auction for spectrum, which includes airwaves that will be used to offer 5G or fifth-generation services, in the current calendar year. While some countries such as South Korea and the U.S. have begun rolling out commercial 5G services, India is yet to begin trial for these even as the government is targeting 2020 as the launch year for 5G in the country. However, during his first address after taking charge of the ministry, Mr. Prasad said the government plans to start 5G trials in the next 100 days or by mid-September.

What is 5G?

It is the next generation cellular technology that will provide faster and more reliable communication with ultra low latency. A government panel report points out that with 5G, the peak network data speeds are expected to be in the range of 2-20 Gigabit per second (Gbps). This is in contrast to 4G link speeds in averaging 6-7 Megabit per second (Mbps) in India as compared to 25 Mbps in advanced countries, it added.

Who does it benefit?

With 5G technology, consumers will be able to download data heavy content such as 8K movies and games with better graphics in just a few seconds. But once 5G becomes commercial, users will be required to change their current devices in favour of 5G-enabled ones.

However, it is likely that the primary use of the technology will go beyond delivery of services on personal mobiles devices. 5G is expected to form the backbone of emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine to machine communications, thereby supporting a much larger range of applications and services, including driverless vehicles, tele-surgery and real time data analytics. The ultra low latency offered by 5G makes the technology desirable for such use cases. Latency is the amount of time data takes to travel between its source and destination.

A government panel on 5G says the technology will extend the use of wireless technologies — for the first time — across completely new sectors of the economy from industrial to commercial, educational, health care, agricultural, financial and social sectors.

The report also stresses that even after the entry of 5G into the Indian networks, the earlier generation mobile technologies (2G, 3G and 4G) will continue to remain in use and that it may take 10 or more years to phase them out.

It is widely accepted that 5G’s value for India may be even higher than in advanced countries because of the lower levels of investments in physical infrastructure. “5G may offer ‘leapfrog’ opportunities by providing ‘smart infrastructure’ that offers lower cost and faster infrastructure delivery,” as per the government panel. One of the primary applications of 5G will be implementation of sensor-embedded network that will allow real time relay of information across fields such as manufacturing, consumer durables and agriculture. 5G can also help make transport infrastructure more efficient by making it smart. 5G will enable vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, making driverless cars, among other things, a reality.

What will be the economic impact?

5G is expected to create a cumulative economic impact of $1 trillion in India by 2035, according to a report by a government-appointed panel. According to a separate report by telecom gear maker Ericsson, 5G-enabled digitalisation revenue potential in India will be above $27 billion by 2026. Additionally, global telecom industry GSMA has forecast that India will have about 70 million 5G connections by 2025.

When will it be launched?

In April, South Korea and the U.S. became the first countries to commercially launch 5G services. South Korea claimed it was the first to do so, beating the U.S. by a couple of hours, a claim disputed by U.S carriers. China too has handed out commercial 5G licences to its major carriers earlier than expected. Mr. Prasad has promised that trials in India will begin by mid-September. During the first term of the Narendra Modi government, the Central government had set a target of 2020 for the commercial launch of 5G services, largely in line with rest of the world. For the trials to begin, the government needs to allot certain amount of spectrum to telcos.

The government launched a three-year programme that started in March 2018 to advance innovation and research in 5G with a budget of ₹224 crore. Ericsson has also installed a 5G test bed at IIT Delhi for developing applications in the broadband and low latency areas. This will help develop India-specific usage scenarios and applications.

What about spectrum auction?

The government plans to undertake spectrum auction in the current calendar year. In a first step towards preparing for these auctions, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had in August last year recommended that entire available spectrum be put to auction in the forthcoming sale. As a result a total of 8,644 MHz of spectrum will be put on sale, making it the largest ever such auction. The total base price of the total airwaves on sale is about ₹4.9 lakh crore.

Spectrum auctions are a major revenue earner for the government. In the last auction, held in October 2016, it fetched the government over ₹65,000 crore. However, 60% of the spectrum remained unsold. For 5G spectrum, i.e. the spectrum in 3300-3600 MHz which will be put out for bids for the first time, the regulator has recommended a pan-India reserve price of about ₹492 crore per MHz for unpaired spectrum.

Are there any apprehensions?

Two of the three private telcos, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, have, however, expressed apprehensions about the auction this year. They have pointed out that the reserve price of these airwaves is very high. Besides, there are currently no India-specific use cases for deployment of 5G.

Telecom industry body Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has also expressed concerns about the financial health of the sector amid intense competition and recent phase of consolidation. Currently, the industry’s cumulative debt is pegged at around ₹7 lakh crore.

Airtel, for example, has hinted that it may not participate in the auctions at the current “exorbitant” prices. Vodafone Idea, which is the country’s largest operator, has requested that the 5G spectrum should not be put on sale before 2020 as there is a need to first develop India-specific use cases.

The COAI has also pointed out that 5G is overpriced by at least 30% to 40% compared to international standards and auction in other markets such as South Korea and the U.S. In previous auctions, the government saw no takers for the 700 MHz spectrum, which is used to offer high speed 4G services and was put on sale for the first time, mainly due to the high reserve price. In its recommendations now, the sectoral regulator has said that the prices be reduced by about 43%. The recommended pan-India reserve price for 700 MHz now is ₹6,538 crore per MHz as opposed to ₹11,500 crore last time. Based on TRAI’s recommendation, the Department of Telecom will work out the final details and timing of the auction.

Besides the spectrum, 5G will require a fundamental change to the core architecture of the communication system. Simply upgrading the existing Long Term Evolution core will not be able to support the various requirements of all 5G use cases. A report on 5G by Deloitte stated that it is anticipated that the industry might require an additional investment of $60-70 billion to seamlessly implement 5G networks. Ernst & Young too estimated a similar amount of investment to implement 5G.

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