Preetham Uthaiah, EVP – Marketing and Strategy, Saankhya Labs

5G as a technology has promised to be a game changer for the growth of modern businesses, through large scale digital transformation, and in turn contributing trillions of dollars towards the GDP of countries. There is a lot of attention given by governments and corporations to the 5G economics and politics because of such high stakes. Globally, several operators have started their initial trials and phased deployment of 5G networks. Though it is still early days, some of them have shared use cases detailing early learnings and advantages in areas such as expanded industrial IoT, more real-time data for better decisions in factories, Smart City technology with digital solutions that have minimised traffic congestion, improved safety, more efficient public services and improved healthcare networks.

To play a relevant role as a global tech player, India will need to roll out 5G before it loses any more ground. However, for India this latest generation of wireless technology rollout is influenced by several geopolitical factors.

The China factor

Chinese companies such as Huawei, ZTE and others have been dominant players in the mobile equipment eco system for some time now. Recent incidents between the India and China coupled with the actions taken by several major countries like US, UK and Australia to ban Chinese telecom equipment have played a major role in some of the delays in procurement of 5G equipment and trials of 5G network in India as well.

With communications equipment being central to a country’s digital assets and 5G’s increased role in connectivity to critical governmental establishments and businesses, the primary concern of India and other countries with China is linked with perceived threat to national security. Countries are hesitant to trust China with this critical section of their digital lifeline. As part of an ongoing trade war with China, the US has banned several Chinese tech firms and designated them as posing an “unacceptable risk” to national security. The companies include Chinese telecommunications giants such as Huawei, along with ZTE, Hytera Communications, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology and Dahua Technology. The ban covers the US and its contractors from doing business with these firms. The UK, France, Australia and Singapore have followed suit, creating an even greater geopolitical flashpoint that is impacting the rollout of 5G in a big way.

While trade between India and China has not really been a casualty in the last year, any further and fresh import of next gen telecom equipment and technologies from China could make India dependent on Chinese vendors. At this point India is unwilling to take a chance.

Ally nations and budding technology partnerships

In the present geopolitical arena, there are several new geopolitical alignments that are taking shape.  For example, India, the United States and Israel held talks on collaboration in development of next generation of emerging technologies, including 5G at the US-India-Israel forum in 2020. A trilateral initiative in this regard was led by PM Modi during his historic visit to Israel in 2017. Companies in the US are backing Indian companies that are working on 5G technology, to establish and rollout 5G infrastructure. The European Union has also expressed the desire to work with democratic partners such as India to establish open and transparent standards as nations prepare to move to the new security protocol which must be a part of every 5G value chain.

Global shortage of semiconductor chips

In addition to the geopolitical fallouts, 5G rollouts have been affected because of the global shortage of semiconductor and other electronic components which are critical to 5G products and infrastructure. Challenges posed by the Covid 19 pandemic have severely affected the global supply chain of electronic manufacturing industry.  With demand remaining high and very little additional chip-making capacity expected, the shortage is expected to last for a while.

The good news is that it has prompted many fabs to commit to investing hundreds of billions of dollars into building new facilities. The process is not only expensive but also long drawn out. It may take some time for the supply chain to stabilise.

The Indian landscape

Traditionally, India has been a little sluggish even in the past while adopting 2G, 3 G and 4G technologies.  After a long wait, according to a parliamentary committee report, India will have a partial rollout of 5G for specific use cases by end of 2021 or early 2022. In the meanwhile, 4G will continue in India for another 5-6 years.

The technology trials for 5G are set to start in May/June. The Department of Telecom is still finalizing the policies and plan for 5G rollout in India. As of now, the auction of the spectrum for 5G services has not been completed. Without the spectrum, Mobile Network Operators will not be able to plan out their 5G rollout strategies. There are no clear policies in place for milli-meter wave spectrum (higher GHz spectrum) auction or usage. Milli-meter wave is an important spectrum band for the large-scale deployment and adoption of 5G, as it is the band where there is enough spectrum to support data rates needed by some of the 5G applications.

The roadmap for India

The current geopolitical situations and its impact on 5G rollout globally is also an opportunity for India to gain strategic advantage and gain technological leadership in this area going forward. With India’s more ‘trustworthy’ image and soft power, the country can provide an able alternative to Chinese dominance in the communication technology eco system. Indian market size can be leveraged in order to achieve the countries strategic objectives.

Government of India is taking several measured steps in this direction by introducing several schemes to promote local manufacturing and technology development in 5G. Initially it may seem that overly depending on India’s local eco system to roll out of 5G network might delay the whole process. However, in the longer run, the country is bound to benefit tremendously from this and can become a global leader for future technologies such as 6G and beyond.

In-house players

5G has strong software and hardware components, both of which are India’s existing strengths. As the country has been developing these technologies for global rollouts all along, it can now direct those capabilities for deploying those products and services for the 5G rollout in India. Developing indigenous capabilities in the 5G telecom space is vital as India has the capabilities to be a leader in 5G technology. There are several home-grown companies within India that have all the capabilities to scale up for a domestic rollout. Another important development has been the global movement towards a more open and disaggregated 5G technology, driven by Open RAN and ORAN initiative. This will not only help operators break the hegemony of few European and Chinese vendors from controlling the 5G radio infrastructure eco system, but it will also give smaller and newer players from India and other countries to enter the market. This will also create a level playing field for players from other countries to play significant role in the 5G rollout. Several operators around the globe, including India, are already seriously considering the Open RAN based 5G network as their main strategy.

Indian industries will benefit from the rollout of 5G

The primary driver of the adoption of 5G technology will be the enterprises and industries. Indian industry will stand to gain from the rollout of 5G. Almost zero latency, extremely high speeds, significantly higher connection density, high-throughput communication and the possibility of simultaneously connecting more devices, all of which are important advantages of 5G, are critical needs at this time.

Sectors such as healthcare, manufacturing, automobiles, infrastructure development, education and entertainment are all reeling from the effects of Covid 19 and need a massive surge of energy to help them reboot.  5G could be a good source of this vital energy. 5G advantages will help in time critical healthcare applications and remote patient monitoring. Networks that are clogged and lack the bandwidth to deliver online education and entertainment on devices will find the fuel to scale up with 5Gs sheer speed – up to 100 times faster than 4G, without much energy consumption. The technology will allow for increased flexibility, lower costs, and smaller lead times for customised changes and alterations which will be required at the manufacturing units. It can aid large volume factory floor production reconfiguration. 5G will also ensure the smooth functioning of various stages of the design process to include VR and AR architectural visualisation. It will enable collaborative meetings with various stakeholders. The technology would enhance machine-to machine connectivity, data analytics, and automation, resulting in the development of new products and businesses, boosting productivity and enhancing governance capacity.

5Gs flexibility and forward compatibility will ensure support for future evolutions in technology and also for services unknown today. For India, 5G can only be a much-needed shot in the arm.