T.V. Ramachandran, President, Broadband India Forum
The year 2021 was largely a year of recovery, as the digital communications sector persevered to bounce back from the effects of the pandemic. The year gone past did bring forth some much-needed and excellent support for the sector, by catering to the essential needs of the people, via strengthening the industry’s capabilities in several verticals – be it telecom, satcom or Wi-Fi. The intent of the government to rejuvenate and revitalise this key sector was also reflected amply through the package of bold and beneficial reforms announced in September 2021.
Going forward, 2022 is expected to hold a lot of promise as many of these positive policy developments are slated to be implemented. The ministry is also working on a second package of far-reaching reforms, being termed as Telecom Reforms 2.0. As optimistic as we are that this next set of reforms would be as prudent as the earlier one, we hope that it takes into account the following key industry considerations, which, we believe, would define the growth trajectory of the sector in 2022.
Key focus areas
Developments in India’s 5G journey are taking place slowly, but surely. The laying down of test beds, the commencement of trials, and the spectrum auction announced to take place by mid-2022, 5G is making steady headway in India. One of the most important factors for its success though would be the availability of sufficient interference-free spectrum for all the incumbent operators in all the 5G spectrum bands – low, mid and high – for optimal utilisation of all the possible use cases. The pricing of the spectrum in each of the bands is also equally important. A composite optimal mix of price and availability of spectrum is crucial, and is likely to have a major impact on the launch and success of 5G. Legacy issues affecting the uptake of spectrum need to be reviewed and addressed urgently in this regard.
Private 5G networks
Given that the commercial deployment of macro 5G networks in India is likely to start only in 2022-23 at the earliest and take at least five years for some meaningful impact (as learnings from the past deployments of 3G/4G indicate), an aggressive and facilitating approach may be taken by policymakers on the use of private 5G networks, so that the industry can keep progressing technologically in order to stay aligned with the rest of the world, especially the digitally advanced nations. Many leading economies have already implemented and are running operational 5G networks for nearly two years now.
Private networks or non-public networks (NPN) provide us an excellent opportunity for India to showcase early adoption of 5G across several sectors – be it healthcare, education, manufacturing, R&D or logistics. With the country’s aspiration to become a global manufacturing and supply chain hub, 5G NPNs would be crucial for enterprises to augment efficiencies, enhance productivity and march towards Industry 4.0.
Since 5G NPNs are captive/dedicated networks of concerned enterprises and not connected to the external commercial market/users, they do not entail the challenges of large spectrum requirements or auction or onerous licensing/security requirements and can therefore be rolled out immediately. Spectrum for private 5G networks is allocated administratively across the globe, and the charges essentially cover only the cost of administration and regulation. India too would need early allotment of such nominally priced spectrum in globally harmonised International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) bands in an administrative manner and in appropriate quantities.
Recognising the importance of unlicensed spectrum in bands like 6 GHz, 60 GHz, etc. to support the explosive growth of advanced wireless services, the government needs to open up these bands to be at par with best international practices.
The US, Korea, Brazil, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Germany, the EU and others have released 6 GHz spectrum to Wi-Fi, which would specifically enable enhanced use of Wi-Fi 6E, besides making spectrum available for the next generation of technologies such as Wi-Fi 7 and 5G NR-U.
Several leading economies have also delicensed the 60 GHz range V band, including the US, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, China, Japan, South Korea and Brazil. The lower V band (57-64 GHz) is highly effective for the provision of public Wi-Fi hotspots and many use cases of short-range devices. When unlicensed, it will also give a fillip to the government’s PM-WANI Public Wi-Fi policy and the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan.
One may note that as per an independent study by Professor Rekha Jain, the economic value of unlicensed spectrum for India would be Rs 12.7 trillion by 2025 (in the 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, 6 GHz and 60 GHz bands), assuming that V band and 6 GHz band are unlicensed in 2023. This is a significant contribution and needs to be leveraged by India at the earliest.
The historical PM-WANI scheme is expected to largely alter India’s shortcomings of public Wi-Fi hotspots and lead to seamless delivery of Wi-Fi services to citizens at affordable rates and of more consistent quality of experience/broadband speeds. It will also lead to explosive growth in business and employment opportunities for small, local or village-level entrepreneurs, especially in rural areas; propelling socio-economic development and inclusion as well as rural digital connectivity. Creation of 10 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2022 as per the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) entails enormous demand and scope for developing components, boosting “aatmanirbharta”. However, a policy framework for expediting the implementation of PM-WANI is required. We have made our detailed submissions on the same and are hoping for the government to take action on this on priority.
The government has clearly demonstrated its intent to facilitate the use of satcom in providing the most efficient and reliable digital connectivity to Indian citizens, through a slew of enabling and liberalising measures for the sector. A string of measures taken by the concerned ministries, namely, the Department of Space through the draft spacecom policy; and the Department of Telecommunications through the liberalisation of the Telecommunication Engineering Centre (TEC) specifications for the ground satellite segment, and approval of the Digital Communications Commission (DCC) to permit the use of satcom for cellular and Wi-Fi backhaul, clearly indicate the intent to open up the satcom space in India.
These actions, coupled with the forward-looking Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommendations on permitting the use of satcom for internet of things (IoT) and other applications in an extremely liberalised manner, have laid down the foundations for the space sector to enable much-needed applications and utility in the country. We hope the new spacecom policy will have some clear satcom components incorporated to help leverage the technology to meet our country’s connectivity needs. We now look forward to 2022 for the final thrust towards implementation of these progressive measures for mainstreaming satcom in the country.
With the highly efficient 5G technology coming up fast, the role of digital communications will become far more expansive and crucial, as 5G’s applicability will supersede that of traditional telecom owing to its widespread applicability and benefits in several other sectors and verticals, impelling productivity and outputs. So, it is all the more important that digital communications, which will be the key factor in connecting, integrating and facilitating the delivery of 5G technology, be strengthened further with a far-sighted view of its implications for future growth of the digital economy. s
The author is Honorary Fellow, IET (London), and President, Broadband India Forum. The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the organisation.