The world is moving towards the roll-out of the much-awaited next-generation communications technology, 5G. US-based telecom operator Verizon Communi­ca­­tions has recently launched the world’s first commercial 5G network in parts of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento. The company has also completed the world’s first 5G data transmission to a smartphone on the commercial 3GPP 5G new radio network. In September 2018, another US-based operator AT&T completed the world’s first wireless 5G data transfer over millimetre wave using standards-based production equipment.

In other countries, too, operators are in the race to take the lead in 5G. The ex­citement around 5G is palpable owing to the plethora of benefits that the technology promises to offer. 5G can provide a latency of 1 millisecond, ushering in ultra-reliable communication, as against a latency of 50 milliseconds in 5G. This decrease in latency will make it possible to design highly advanced use cases such as auto­nomous cars and remote surgeries.

The government has also repeatedly expressed that it does not wish to miss the 5G bus and aims to roll out the technology in India in line with global timelines. The advent of next-generation 5G wireless services is expected to unleash a $1 trillion economic opportunity in the country. The government has, therefore, taken several initiatives such as collaborating with telecom operators to conduct field trials and demonstrate India-specific 5G use cases, and identifying relevant spectrum bands for 5G. The recently concluded India Mobile Congress (IMC), 2018 showcased India’s readiness for 5G and positioned the country as a global telecom hub for investments in next-generation technology.

Laying the groundwork: Field trials

The government has invited operators such as Vodafone Idea Limited, Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) together with vendors such as Cis­co, Samsung, Ericsson, Nokia and Hua­wei to initiate 5G field trials and de­monstrate 5G use cases in India. To facilitate these trials, the government has laun­ched a programme, “Building an end-to-end 5G Test Bed”, in collaboration with technology companies and universities such as Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, IIT Hyderabad, IIT Delhi, IIT Kanpur and Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. The programme aims to build proof-of-concept 5G prototypes that are compliant with global standards. As part of the programme, Ericsson ins­talled the first public access 5G test bed at IIT Delhi in July 2018 for developing applications in the broadband and low latency areas. Going forward, the government is planning to set up a special regime to grant instant approval to companies for conducting 5G-based research and development (R&D) field trials and activities.

In February 2018, Bharti Airtel and China-based vendor Huawei successfully conducted India’s first 5G network trial under a test set-up at the former’s network experience centre in Manesar, Gurugram. During the test trial, a user throughput of more than 3 Gbps was achieved. This was the highest measured throughput for a mobile network in the 3.5 GHz band and end-to-end network latency of approximately 1 millisecond. Samsung India is also planning to conduct large scale 5G trials in Delhi during the first quarter of 2019 and will soon decide the partner operator and identify relevant spectrum bands for the same. The company expects that several new 5G use cases will emerge in these trials. Meanwhile, BSNL has signed an MoU with Ericsson to work together on the development of new 5G use cases, and knowledge sharing of 5G technology concepts, industry and innovation trends including 3GPP standardisation. The partnership will leverage Ericsson’s 5G centre of excellence established in IIT Delhi to evaluate the benefits of 5G technology in rural connectivity, connected healthcare, industrial automation, public safety, video surveillance, energy, agriculture, among other areas.

Policy roadmap for 5G

In order to set a roadmap for the roll-out of 5G, the government had set up a high-level forum in September 2017. The committee has recently submitted its report and suggested early allocation of 5G spectrum, increasing the quantum of available 5G spectrum, and lowering the spectrum prices. It has further suggested that the government should provide financial support to telecom operators for backhaul, site acquisition, civil works and 5G trials, and guidelines on regulatory matters should be promulgated by March 2019 to facilitate early 5G deployment.

However, the slow adoption of fibre-based networks will be a teething issue in the roll-out of 5G services. In view of this, the government has proposed the National Digital Communications Policy to enhance the backhaul capacity for supporting 5G. To this end, it plans to implement a “fibre-to-the-tower” programme, which will enable fiberisation of at least 60 per cent base stations. Moreover, the policy has ad­vocated a review of industry practices with respect to traffic prioritisation to provide 5G-enabled applications and services. It has also suggested creating a fund for R&D in 5G technology for start-ups and entrepreneurs to develop 5G use cases.

As far as the identification and allocation of various spectrum bands for 5G is concerned, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), in August 2018, recommended the auction of spectrum in the 3300-3600 MHz band for offering 5G services for the first time in the country at a pan-Indian reserve price of about Rs 4.92 billion per MHz. As per the regulator, 5G airwaves should be put to auction in the block size of 20 MHz. Moreover, the regulator has suggested that there should not be any roll-out obligations for this band and spectrum trading should be allowed after a lock-in period of five years as opposed to two years to avoid misuse. However, TRAI did not suggest a timeline for the 5G spectrum sale. Mean­while, the high-powered panel on 5G has identified and recommended specific bands for 5G spectrum allocation. The panel has recommended a phase-wise allocation of 5G spectrum. This will include 405 MHz of spectrum, which is readily available. Additionally, 137 MHz of spectrum in the sub-4 GHz category, and 5.25 GHz along with 8.3 GHz in the sub-45 GHz category will be available. The panel has also suggested that the government should come out with its spectrum policy and issue the necessary notifications by December 31, 2018.

The Department of Telecommunica­tions (DoT) will most likely auction the spectrum for 5G services in the second half of 2019. Further, DoT plans to provide a one-year timeframe for conducting trials with experimental spectrum before the auction happens. The government intends to provide operators experimental licences so that they can develop test beds in order to enable the evolution of a full-fledged ecosystem for 5G services.

The recently concluded IMC 2018 showcased India’s readiness for 5G and positioned the country as a global telecom hub for investments in nextgeneration technology.

Issues and concerns

The government is targeting to roll out 5G services with other countries. By being an early adopter of 5G, India can enhance the 5G dividend and also become an innovator in applications. A closer look, however, is required with regard to the preparedness of the industry to embrace 5G.

According to a report by Moody’s In­ves­­tors Service, India along with Indone­sia, Malaysia and Bangladesh will be a late adopter of 5G services as the telecom operators are still focused on increasing the density of their 4G coverage. More importantly, the industry today is reeling from a massive debt burden of more than Rs 7 trillion. Hence, even though the telecom industry is upbeat about the 5G opportunity, it is difficult to undertake the massive infrastructure investment required to upgrade to 5G services by 2020, given the financial turmoil in the sector. According to a report by De­loitte and the Confederation of Indian In­dus­­try, the telecom industry might require an additional investment of $60-$70 billion to implement 5G networks in India. Other industry reports indicate that the operators will take at least five to six years to get a return on their investment in 5G spectrum and 5G technology.

Another key challenge in rolling out 5G networks is the poor penetration of fibre-based backhaul in India. The new right-of-way rules formulated to address this issue are also facing several implementation hurdles.

Notwithstanding these challenges, it is clear that the government’s proactive stance has set the ball rolling for the introduction of 5G services in India. Going forward, the government’s role is indispensable in ensuring a reasonably priced spectrum for the industry, fast fiberisation of existing infrastructure, and development of relevant use cases.