The industry is abuzz with 5G and related developments. While operators and vendors are working towards ensuring quick roll-out of the service, non-availability of spectrum and other issues such as low fibre density continue to be key roadblocks. Addressing these issues effectively will enable the industry to fast-track 5G roll-out and tap into the new revenue streams that will open up once the 5G use case ecosystem starts to mature.
At tele.net’s recent virtual conference, “Telecom Infrastructure in India”, representatives from Cisco, Ciena and Tejas Networks shared their views on the 5G readiness of the industry, the key investments required, the likely timeline for roll-out, the development of a 5G use case ecosystem, and the way forward. Key highlights of the discussion…
Current level of 5G readiness in India
The industry is at a somewhat advanced stage of readinessas far as 5G preparedness is concerned. The vendor community has been actively investing in and carrying out research to prepare the groundwork for the new generation technology. For instance, over the past few years, Cisco has invested over $30 billion in research and development of technologies related to 5G, Wi-Fi 6, multi cloud.
Service partners are also becoming ready. Significant development has taken place, especially with respect to cores. Reliance Jio and Airtel have already been working on their 5G cores. Following some initial lab trials, commercial roll-outs are expected early next year.
That said, there is still a long way to go before the industry embraces 5G fully. The networks have to be updated to cater to the increase in data traffic and demand for low latency applications that will follow in the 5G era.
Further, while the ecosystem for 5G is being developed, there are still some gaps in infrastructure readiness that operators need to bridge to enable the successful commercial roll-out of 5G. Operators are not quite ready yet, as far as fibre densification is concerned. Even with respect to 4G, fibre densification only extends to 25 per cent of base stations at present. It may vary across operators, but it is still not at optimal levels. When it comes to 5G, which is riding high on the promise of providing high speeds, fibre densification will be key, and the demand for fibre will increase manyfold.
Additionally, industry leaders have stressed that spectrum auctions need to take place soon. It will give the much-needed push to 5G roll-out and will also be beneficial for the government from the revenue point of view. Operators also need to work on reaching out closer to the edge (in terms of edge computing). These infrastructure gaps have to be filled by operators.
Meanwhile, on the handset side, although a lot of development has taken place and some 5G-compatible mobile devices are already available, the price points and the volumes are still not at the required level.
Having said that, 5G is not just about high speeds, devices and fibre roll-out. It has many other applications that the industry is still not ready for.
5G use cases
India has traditionally been a fibre-starved country. So, for India, the biggest use case of 5G is going to be fixed wireless access. Bandwidth is another key issue for users in India. Even today, in the 4G scenario, users are not even getting 3G speeds. So, enabling better speeds will be a key use case of 5G, and it should be implemented by rolling out 5G through the upgradation of 4G. Therefore, whatever 4G cores have been deployed have to be coupled with additional equipment or radios and fibre networks.
Industry 4.0 will be another key application of 5G. With the fourth industrial revolution, massive sensorisation and internet of things (IoT) are emerging in a big way. The coming of smart cities has also provided an impetus to Industry 4.0.
In addition to this, various latency-specific applications such as telemedicine, connected cars, and online and real-time gaming are expected to arise. IoT and artificial intelligence can enable asset tracking, which would be very important in transportation, especially in the connected cars scenario. The list of latency-specific use cases is non-exhaustive, and the industry will find multiple applications once these networks come into play.
The biggest investment should be in buying spectrum and establishing radio networks. The second biggest should be in transport infrastructure, given that 5G will require not just wireless but wireline networks as well. Electronics and radio access networks are some of the other key areas that will require substantial amounts of funds.
5G roll-out will require massive fiberisation, which, in turn, will require a lot of investment. The industry should ideally utilise the time till the launch of 5G to fiberise all of its towers and infrastructure.
In addition, huge investments will be needed to unlock the various revenue streams that the industry is anticipating – for instance, to set up cloud infrastructure. Likewise, investments will be required to tap the new applications, platforms and use cases that are anticipated. When we put all this together, the total investment is going to be worth billions of dollars.
Timelines for roll-out
Realistically, India is still two to three years away from real 5G deployment. However, industry leaders are of the view that the earliest roll-outs will start happening within 12-18 months. So, while some early deployments will occur by end-2022, the technology will truly start appearing in the field only by end-2023.
Key learnings from around the globe
Globally, 5G deployments are already taking place. Indian operators can derive certain key learnings from these roll-outs. India being an economy where cost is a prime factor, the first and foremost learning should be regarding implementing these networks at the lowest cost possible. Cost per GB is a key concern for operators today. They need to figure out how to bring down the cost of production while they continue to build exponentially large capacities. Operators outside of India are trying to converge certain layers in the network to get capex benefits. Indian operators can probably replicate this model of consolidation of telecom networks.
Another learning can be regarding fibre density. Given that India is a fibre-starved country, Indian players can take a lesson or two from fibre deployments in other countries. Greater fibre density will act as an enabler for myriad radio capacities.
Developing skill sets is another area where Indian operators can learn from their global counterparts. With 5G, the industry will require more programming-related skill sets for technical staff over their standard hardware configuration skill sets.
And finally, since the 5G economy is expected to be essentially an application economy, a vibrant vendor and start-up ecosystem will be key. Once 5G kicks in, there will be an influx of start-ups, software vendors and other such players, who can build platforms and applications. Since this is already happening in other countries at a massive scale, India can learn from their experience.
The way forward – the Indian proposition
Industry leaders stress that as a country, India needs to use the 5G opportunity to grow its own technologies and manufacturing. There are various Indian companies that have built equipment and chipsets, and have consequently contributed to the development of Indian intellectual property rights. These leaders believe that the next two years should be utilised in creating a strong, Aatmanirbhar Bharat for 5G roll-out.
On a related note, India recently came out with a few 5G standards, supported by the Telecommunications Standards Development Society, India, that are being utilised for various use cases specifically suited to developing countries. It has often been stressed that India’s standards are not India-specific and are applicable to other developing nations. This is true for its 5G standards as well. Since 70 per cent of the world’s population stays in developing countries, there is a strong need to create a set of 5G standards that are suited to their requirements and conditions.
The next three to six quarters are going to be exciting times for India as operators get 5G-ready. The software ecosystem will also mature over this time, in terms of software platforms and devices.