Telecom operators around the world have accelerated their efforts to launch 5G services, with several of them initiating network trials to set up the desired ecosystem prior to the commercial launch of the technology. 5G has created a buzz in the industry given its immense potential in improving network speeds and connectivity and supporting next-generation technologies such as internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

In addition, 5G is expected to offer network speeds of up to 10 Gbps and 1,000 ti­mes increased bandwidth per unit area com­­­­pared to 4G. It is also expected to re­du­ce the round-trip delay time (latency) from 50 milliseconds to less than 1 millisecond, ensure network availability of 99.999 per cent and support up to 90 per cent re­duc­tion in energy consumption. 5G will also expand the universe of connected devi­ces by supporting up to 100 times more connected devices than the current networks.

The development of 5G standards has also started, with the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the global organisation that sets cellular standards for carriers and equipment vendors, recently ratifying the non-stand-alone 5G new radio (NR) specification. The release of the specification has given the industry the go-ahead to standardise the design and implement commercial 5G products.

Indian scenario

The government aims to bring 5G to India in line with the global timeline, having missed this opportunity during the launch of 3G and 4G technologies. It is playing a proactive role in the testing of 5G standards that are likely to be finalised by end-2018. Many large service providers have already entered into partnerships with hardware and software developers for testing 5G technology and its use cases.

There are several reasons for the Indian telecom industry’s increased interest in the 5G space. First, with smartphones steadily becoming the primary computing devices for people across the country, 5G networks will be required to enable high speed brow­sing, faster downloads, high quality audio and video calls and smooth streaming of content. Second, 5G will drive the country’s ambitious Digital India initiative and Smart Cities Mission. It is critical to unleash the true potential of IoT and machine-to-ma­chine technologies, which form the backbone of a smart city’s communications in­fra­structure. Third, 5G is likely to contribute significantly to operator profitability by helping operators move beyond their role of connectivity and infrastructure providers to become service enablers and service creators. The introduction of 5G is also expected to yield significant economic benefits in the form of increased gross do­mestic product and additional employment.

Progress on the policy front

In September 2017, the government formed a high-level committee to evaluate and approve the roadmap for large-scale 5G roll-out in the country by 2020, identify relevant 5G use cases and create a globally competitive product and manufacturing ecosystem over the next five to seven years. The committee has representations from the ministries of telecom, information technology and science and technology, and is expected to release the roadmap by June 2018. Meanwhile, the government has approved a financial grant to set up an indigenous 5G test bed for Indian companies and academia. The project will be undertaken by the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institute of Science. In April 2018, IIT Delhi set up a multiple input multiple output (MIMO) radio laboratory for the standardisation,  research and development of 5G networks. The government is also keen to collaborate with other countries on 5G to secure its position as a leader in this space. It has initiated discussions with South Korea to collaborate on the establishment of 5G test laboratories.

As far as spectrum for 5G is concerned, the government has asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to give its recommendations on the reserve price of airwaves in various bands (including 3300-3400 MHz and 3500-3600 MHz) that are being considered for offering 5G services. While the regulator began the process of consultation on the next round of spectrum auctions in early 2017, it is yet to release the recommendations. Further, in March 2018, the Department of Tele­communications (DoT) asked operators and internet service providers such as Bharti Airtel and Tata Communications, and corporations such as Indian Oil and Oil and Natural Gas Cor­poration (ONGC) to vacate their spectrum in the 3300-3400 MHz band and migrate to other bands within six months.

Operators and equipment vendors gear up for 5G

Several telecom operators and equipment vendors have accelerated their work on 5G to ensure an early roll-out. In February 2018, Bharti Airtel and China-based telecom vendor Huawei successfully conducted India’s first 5G network trial. The set-up included a 5G radio access network operating in the 3.5 GHz band, and 5G core network and a 50 GE (Gigabit Ethernet) network slicing router. According to Huawei, during the test trial, a user throughput of more than 3 Gbps was achieved. Repor­tedly, this is the highest measured throughput for a mobile network in the 3.5 GHz band, with 100 MHz bandwidth and end-to-end network latency of around 1 millisecond. Mea­n­while, Bharti Airtel stated that with the successful trial, it is moving quickly towards 5G interoperability and development testing based on 3GPP standards. Earlier, in October 2017, Bharti Airtel partnered with equipment vendor Ericsson to develop a strategic 5G road­map. As per the agreement, Ericsson will help Airtel transform its network to the 5G technology standard. Further, Ericsson will provide its 5G-related technological solutions to demonstrate capabilities, and help the operator identify use cases around the new technology. Airtel has also recently entered into a strategic alliance with SK Telecom to leverage the latter’s expertise in building advanced telecom networks and collaborate on the development of 5G, network functions virtualisation, software-defined networking and IoT technologies.

Meanwhile, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) signed an MoU with China-based equipment vendor ZTE in September 2017 for the development of pre-5G and 5G wireless systems. Under the MoU, the companies seek to establish virtual network architecture for research and commercialisation in India. BSNL has also partnered with Coriant to undertake research and develop 5G-based industrial internet applications for enterprises.

ZTE has initiated 5G-related activities such as pre-5G trials in partnership with other operators as well including Vodafone India and Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL). It has also partnered with Bharti Airtel to provide 5G-ready MIMO technology. Among other equipment vendors, Ericsson conducted a live 5G end-to-end demonstration using its 5G test bed and 5G NR in December 2017. The demonstration highlighted extremely high throu­ghput and ultra-low latency. It also featured 5G use cases and a live demonstration of essential technologies such as gigabit long term evolution (1 Gbps download speeds) with licence-assisted access. Other technology innovations presented in the showcase included advancements in radio network evolution, 5G-re­ady transport and network slicing. Mea­n­while, Nokia has begun manufacturing 5G-ready multiband base stations in India at its Chennai facility while Huawei is working with operators to str­en­g­then the associated network including backhaul, backbone and national long distance. Meanwhile, Samsung is undertaking an infill and growth project for RJIL, under which it will expand the operator’s current network capacity and coverage, and create new opportunities for LTE-Advanced Pro and 5G deployment.

Key challenges in 5G roll-out

Although the Indian telecom industry is upbeat about the 5G opportunity, it faces several challenges that need to be addressed to ensure the timely deployment of 5G in the country. The current financial turmoil in the sector has made it difficult for the industry to invest significantly in 5G roll-out, which entails a high capex. It has been observed that the demand for new technologies in the market often exceeds the demand for traditional technologies by a huge margin. Although operators try to introduce new technology sooner to gain the first-mover advantage, it takes a toll on their balance sheets as it requires significant capex in spectrum, infrastructure, ecosystem development and marketing.

Telecom operators have voiced their concerns over the early auction of spectrum including 5G airwaves, and want it to be held in the next financial year starting April 2019. However, any delay in the auction of 5G spectrum will postpone the roll-out of 5G services. In this context, the government is working to reduce the industry’s financial stress by proposing an optimal pricing of spectrum and a review of levies such as licence fees and spectrum usage charges under the draft National Digital Communications Policy, 2018. The rationalisation of spectrum costs is expected to fuel the industry’s demand for additional spectrum, including 5G airwaves.

Moreover, fibre-based backhaul is critical to ensure the low latency, low interference and high network capacity associated with 5G services. The previous generations of wire­­less technologies relied on broader blo­cks of spectrum and spectral efficiency to provide higher speeds and capacity. For 5G, higher frequencies and network densification are needed to provide in­crea­s­ed speed and capacity, which can be achie­v­ed only through fibre-based backhaul. Cu­rrently, less than 25 per cent of the telecom towers in India are fiberised co­m­­­pa­red to 65-80 per cent in the US and China.

The deployment of fibre closer to the customers will be necessary for the efficient transport of increasing wireless traffic on 5G networks. As per industry estimates, annual fibre deployment in the country needs to be increased at least two to three times from the current 16 million–18 million km per year. However, this is a challenging proposition for the industry. Apart from the fact that fibre deployment entails huge investments, obtaining right-of-way (RoW) permission from local governments remains a serious bottleneck even after the release of the government’s new RoW rules. Many states are yet to implement the single-window system for obtaining RoW as per the new rules, and local bodies continue to see RoW permits as a source of revenue rather than as an impediment to setting up critical fibre infrastructure. Effective implementation of the RoW policy is critical for the expansion of fibre infrastructure.

Another challenge stems from the fact that 5G works on high frequency bands (millimetre waves) with a limited range and its deployment requires a large numbers of towers. Higher frequency bands come with inherent challenges such as high penetration loss, higher sensitivity to blockage and diminished diffraction, which the system must overcome to cater to dense areas. The launch of 5G is likely to be spatially fragmented, avoiding areas that are uneconomical for investment. Further, the complexity of network architecture for 5G, coupled with an exponential growth in devices will make rural penetration a challenging proposition. Telecom operators will need to work out a solution that enables them to scale up network capacity without overshooting their expenses.

The way forward

5G could prove to be a game changer in the telecom industry given its multiple use cases. According to Aruna Sundararajan, secretary, DoT, “the 5G technology evolution is expected to enable new services, connect new industries and various forms of devices, and empower new user experiences to support expanded connectivity needs for the next decade and beyond. With 5G, we will soon see a transformation in the way we live and I am glad that India is at the forefront of this change.” The Indian market has taken early steps to create an ecosystem that is conducive to 5G deployment. How­ever, there is still a long way to go especially with the development of backhaul networks to support the technology. Going forward, fiberisation of existing infrastructure and availability of reasonably priced spectrum will be critical to the deployment of 5G networks. This would usher in a new wave of growth in the Indian telecom market. The roll-out of 5G will also depend on the collaborative efforts of telecom players, equipment vendors and researchers.