Since the initial launch of 5G in Octo­ber 2022, the Indian telecom industry has made significant prog­ress in deploying 5G services across the country. Leading the expansion are Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited, which have rapidly rolled out their 5G services in major cities. Bharti Airtel has re­cently an­nounced its 5G Plus service, which is now available in 500 cities across the country, while Jio’s True 5G services can be accessed in 365 cities. Airtel aims to cover all urban areas with 5G by Sep­tember 2023, which is earlier than its previous target of March 2024. It also plans to extend its 5G network to 60,000-70,000 villages. Meanwhile, Jio plans to expand its 5G services across India by the end of 2023. Both operators are offering attractive tariff pla­ns to help customers experience the su­perior network speeds and qua­lity offered by 5G and prevent them from switching to their competitors.

As telecom operators have surpassed their initial targets for rolling out 5G networks, the government is taking steps to he­lp operators monetise their 5G networks by promoting the adoption of 5G applications in sectors such as education, health and agriculture. The operators, too, are showcasing multiple 5G use cases and collaborating with equipment vendors to create new use cases catering to enterprises across various industry verticals.

Going forward, expediting infrastructure deployment to enable widespread deployment of 5G services will be a critical challenge. In order to achieve network sp­eeds that are up to 100 times faster than 4G, with nearly zero latency and ex­tremely high throughput, 5G network infrastructure must support up to 10 times more bandwidth than the current 4G infrastructure. This necessitates a significant ramp-up of telecom infrastructu­re, including telecom towers and fibre networks. Telecom ope­rators have deployed a total of 102,215 5G base transceiver stations across the country as of March 2023. However, the industry believes that challenges related to right of way (RoW) and the significant in­vest­ment required for further scale-up of 5G infrastructure could potentially derail the pan-India 5G roll-out plans.

A look at the emerging 5G use cases in In­dia, infrastructure requirements for lar­ge-scale roll-out, and the key issues and challenges…

New use cases to monetise 5G offerings

Indian telecom operators have been ac­ti­ve­ly testing various India-specific 5G use cases in domains such as healthcare, industrial automation, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). For instance, Vo­dafone Idea Limited, in collaboration with network equipment vendor Ericsson, re­cently conducted a trial to demonstrate the use of 5G connectivity in enabling acc­ess to healthcare in remote parts of the country. Meanwhile, Bharti Air­tel has en­tered into a partnership with Apollo Hos­pitals and Cisco to create a 5G connected ambulance, equipped with pati­ent monitoring applications and telemetry devices that transmit the patient’s health data to the hospital in real time. Jio has also been conducting 5G trials for various use cases such as AR/VR, network slicing, connected hospitals, 5G-enabled drones, cloud gaming, 8K YouTube video streaming, virtual collaboration, immersive experience, Jio Glass, 5G robotics, IoT-based en­ergy management monitoring and sm­ar­t home solutions.

The government is also encouraging tri­als of 5G use cases across a range of in­dustries, including healthcare, education, agriculture, surveillance, enhanced mobile broadband and fixed wireless access. It has compiled a list of 100 5G use cases and shared it with relevant stakeholders, urging ministries and private sector players to implement these applications.

Private 5G networks are also becoming increasingly popular. With a private network, the owner can grant exclusive ac­cess to authorised individuals and devices, enabling organisations to ensure that only those within their office premises have ac­c­ess to their network. Compared to public cellular networks or Wi-Fi, private 5G net­works promise a wide range of network-related advantages to enterprises in­cluding enhanced security, greater control, efficient management and predictable services. In addition, private networks provi­de increased availability and coverage due to new spectrum bands dedicated spe­cifi­cally to private cellular networks.

Many major enterprises have started deploying private 5G networks customised to their specific network requirements. For example, manufacturing firms are bu­il­­ding 5G networks optimised for their industrial control equipment, enab­ling re­al-time use of robotics and augmented re­ality for interaction with machi­nes and in­dustrial processes. Hospitals are building their own 5G networks to ensure se­am­­less telemedicine operations while logistics firms are using captive 5G networks for efficient tracking, monitoring and sorting of packages and shipments. Private 5G networks are also emerging as the preferred network architecture for oil and gas firms for facilities located outside the range of commercial networks. Fur­ther, due to issues related to coverage and the complex maintenance requirements associated with Wi-Fi, educational campuses are also beginning to favour private 5G networks.

5G infrastructure deployment gains momentum, but faces RoW hurdles

Improving fiberisation levels and increasing the deployment of small cells are critical to the successful roll-out of 5G services across the country. Fibre-based backhaul is required to achieve low latency, low interference and high network capacity. Experts suggest that by 2024, at least 70 per cent of towers need to be fiberised for a full-scale launch of 5G services, which would require an investment of Rs 2.2 trillion. Mean­while, small cells are emerging as a critical component of the global 5G roll-out strategy, given that most telecom operators are using millimetre wave spectrum, which has higher capacity rates but covers smaller distances. Thus, radios need to be closer than in 3G or 4G, making small cells a natural fit for 5G roll-out. Each small cell must be backhauled through fibre, further highlighting the importance of fiberisation for 5G deployment.

To expedite the deployment of telecom infrastructure for 5G networks, the Indian government introduced new amendments to the Indian Telegraph RoW Rules, 2016 in August 2022. The new rules have simplified the RoW application procedures and allowed telecom licensees to use street infrastructure for installing small cells and overground optical fibre at nominal rates. However, the industry contends that while there has been significant progress on the RoW front, the local authorities have not fully adopted the central RoW rules and there is involvement of multiple other pl­ay­ers, including private players, which creates several hurdles in installing towers and laying underground and overground fibre.

Other challenges in pan-Indian 5G adoption

A key challenge in expanding 5G services is the need for substantial investment. According to a recent report, the industry would require a total investment of Rs 921 billion-Rs 1,411 billion during 2022-27 to deploy various building blocks of 5G, in­cluding fibre and micro­wave deployment, outdoor small cells, and in-building solutions. For an industry that is already burdened with a debt of Rs 6 trillion, and with regulatory and licensing levies expected to increase significantly after the 5G spectr­um sale, securing such large investment remains a formidable challenge.

Another challenge is the increased susceptibility of 5G to cyberthreats due to the unique features that differentiate it from earlier communication technologies. The technology’s over dependence on the clo­ud, IoT and virtualisation creates potential risks for major security flaws and introduces new attack surfaces. The large number of devices with varying levels of security connected to a 5G network adds to security challenges. Curr­en­tly, there is a shortage of tools and experts to address these threats.

Future outlook

5G is not only providing better network experiences for individual users, but also presents opportunities for enterprises to develop new value-added services and di­gi­tise critical national infrastructure in energy, transport and healthcare. The In­dian telecom industry is witnessing rapid 5G implementation in global history. While Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited and Vi have not yet released their 5G offerings, Airtel and Jio are offering 5G services in many cities.

Going forward, overcoming infrastr­ucture and investment challenges is crucial for the successful implementation of 5G across the country. Moreover, it is es­sential for enterprises and service provi­ders to collaborate and develop solutions to ensure end-to-end network security for 5G networks. A secure and reliable 5G net­work will be a key differentiator and re­venue enabler for both operators and enterprises.