The advent of the metaverse will mean a huge new opportunity for telecom service providers. But it will also stress the current telecom infrastructure to brea­king point and even the 5G network roll-outs as currently envisaged will not be able to handle the estimated loads.

The “metaverse” is a term derived fr­om science fiction and it could be des­cri­bed as a 3D virtual space where individuals use avatars to seamlessly interact with oth­er users in mixed virtual and physical environments as they would, let’s say, in a vid­eo game. The use cases for this sort of en­vi­ronment are countless. As such an environment develops and stabilises, people will find more ways to use it.

Many digital giants are trying to develop tools, hardware and infrastructure to exploit this immersive environment – they are also assuming that it will be a seamless 24×7 experience. Apart from the erstwhile Facebook, which has changed its name to Meta, other industry giants such as Goo­gle and Apple are all looking at the metaverse. So are autonomous vehicle manufacturers, online healthcare service provi­ders, other IoT-related industries, gaming companies, banking and financial service providers, news and entertainment content providers, etc.

Vast amounts of new software will be required to create these environments, and service providers will have to move to new technologies such as Edge computing, wh­i­ch means a big shift in the current clo­ud-based digital architecture. A lot of new ha­rd­ware in the form of smartphones, he­ad­sets, smart glasses, virtual reality gloves, etc. would also be required.

The key to all this happening however, is the telecom infrastructure. The transition of the digital ecosystem to the metaverse will push data usage by 20x by 2032, and telecom operators must be suitably pla­ced to benefit from the surge. Telecom service providers will have to cope with an exponential increase in low-latency data since the metaverse will not work in terms of user experience unless it can be seamless and also accessed while mobile.

To make the metaverse work, telecom service providers will need to support billions of devices that are simultaneously in­teracting to create content and transfer data. Low latency is a must, as is more ba­nd­width. Even 5G with all its promise may not be enough. The currently under-development 6G standard will be requir­ed, alongside WiFi6 and Edge computing.

In addition, telecom service providers will have to either build partnerships with other companies, or build their own metaverses and try to onboard users to those pl­at­forms, or, perhaps, try a mix of both stra­tegies. In environments such as India, where there is already a large gaming, entertainment and over-the-top (OTT) ecosystem, it may make more sense for telecom service providers to enter into partnerships – they already have relationships, for instance, to offer music, movies, sports, news and games.

For the Indian telecom ecosystem, the metaverse will mean a huge jump. While the Telecom Regulatory Authority of In­dia (TRAI) is considering cutting 5G spectrum auction rates, telcos will have to buy 5G spectrum, then roll out networks, and also get ready to move on to 6G as and when that becomes available. Alongside all the digital companies working to get to the metaverse, telecom service providers will have to define their metaverse strategies, build their teams, develop the new skills required and explore partnerships to support the metaverse.

India is already behind the curve where 5G is concerned. Given the economics of the telecom sector, where only one company has a strong balance sheet, rolling out a comprehensive 5G footprint is itself a huge ask since large investments will be necessary. Moreover, it is not clear how fast revenues will accrue on the 5G platform to ensure returns on investments.

But the pandemic has speeded up the adoption of remote working protocols, cau­sing a transition to hybrid and home working for most users. This change in the ways people work and socialise could also mean easier adoption of 5G and the metaverse.

Regulatory roadblocks

To ensure that this new technology offers a stable and safe environment, new regulations will be necessary. The European Un­i­on’s Digital Market Act is one attempt to create such model regulations, but na­tio­nal regulators around the world, including in India, will have to evolve their own versions of regulations. This is especially critical in India where earlier regulatory ef­forts in the digital and telecom spaces had gaps and ambiguities that have resulted in complicated litigation that has held back the sector.

In a broader sense, India still does not have digital privacy protection legislation and the draft legislation, which has been long awaited, may need further revisions to ensure users of the metaverse are protected. The new environment would be even more vulnerable to misuse such as di­gital manipulation, excessive surveilla­nce and data harvesting. Sensible re­gulation will be needed to ensure this is all minimised.

Another regulatory stumbling block could be the Indian government’s aversion to crypto. By moving towards the outlawing of cryptocurrency, the official policy may also retard the adoption of blockchain technologies, which are useful for designing decentralised metaverses. If Indian pl­a­yers use centralised, non-crypto methods instead, this will mean a loss of innovation and lack of possible interoperability. Non-crypto metaverse platforms may not be able to attract broad participation from Web 3.0 players.

Metaverse developments 

Standalone and partnered metaverse offerings are available already in environments with high fixed broadband penetration and/ or 5G networks. Among the digital giants, Facebook/Meta has launched Hori­zon Workrooms, a social network VR experien­ce powered by Oculus headsets (Oculus is owned by Meta), for users to work and so­cialise using avatars. The semi-conductor giant, Nvidia, is building its own metaverse, dubbed the Omniverse, allowing us­ers to work and create collaboratively in a shared virtual environment.

Carmaker Nissan and telecom service provider NTT Docomo are creating virtual dashboards with Nissan’s Invisible-to-Visible (I2V) system, overlaying car wi­n­dscreens with information from the car’s onboard sensors.

Gaming leader Epic Games is looking to build a metaverse within its flagship ti­tle, Fortnite, offering social options, virtual con­certs, film festivals and a virtual football stadium supported by telecom service pro­vider Verizon. The entertainment giant, The Walt Disney Company, is also looking at a metaverse strategy that leverages its en­or­mo­us brand and its huge content library.

South Korea’s SK Telecom has laun­ch­ed a standalone metaverse platform, Ifl­a­nd, which is initially focused on offering virtual meeting spaces and conference spa­ces that can hold large-scale lectures, festivals and concerts. It is looking to pull in partners and users. It has over 1.1 million monthly active users – fair penetration gi­ven that it has a 5G customer base of around 10 million.

A metaverse industry committee in China has added 17 corporate members, bringing the tally to 112 in total. This committee includes all the Chinese tech giants, apart from telecom service providers.

US operator AT&T has launched its own metaverse, AT&T Station, in partnership with gaming and lifestyle organisation 100 Thieves. This offers a 3D body scan to help users customise their own unique avatar.

Indian experience

India’s fixed broadband penetration hit about 9 per cent in fiscal year 2021-22, up from 6.8 per cent in 2019-20. The penetration is expected to increase to 12.6 per cent by 2024-25. This will not be enough – 5G has to roll out as well and telecom service providers have to develop coherent strategies for the metaverse.

India’s top two telecom service pro­vi­ders will be scrambling to get ready for the metaverse. Jio Platforms (JPL) is pre­paring for its own metaverse and Web 3.0 plays, and it recently invested $15 million in Silicon Valley-based deep tech startup, Two Platforms Inc., for a 25 per cent eq­uity stake. Bharti Airtel also cannot aff­ord to miss out.

Airtel is said to be looking into deeper partnerships with content providers and OTT players to enable use cases such as sp­orts events, gaming and business meetings. In some areas, content needs to be ho­sted on data centres, apart from needing high-speed 5G connectivity.

In a test demo, Airtel recreated the in-stadia experience of Kapil Dev’s famous 175 Not Out vs Zimbabwe during the 1983 Cricket World Cup. This was done at Airtel’s Network Experience Centre in Manesar using Ericsson 5G Radio in non-standalone mode over 3500 MHz band test spectrum.

The third ranked telecom service pro­vider, Vodafone Idea, has partnered with UK-based Mobile Streams Plc to launch gaming, e-sports and metaverse services in 2022.

The metaverse represents a trillion-dollar opportunity for telecom service pr­o­­viders and other players in the digital eco­­system. This will require a combination of clever strategising, deep investme­nts and sensible policy-making to be fully realised. India is somewhat behind the cu­rve in terms of 5G adoption, so it will have to speed up things to catch up with the rest of the world.

Devangshu Datta