Discussions around India’s uptake, deployment and preparedness for 5G have been going on for quite some time now. What is new in the 5G context is how a certain segment of the industry has now started pushing for the localisation of the technology. This is being proposed through three means – localisation of 5G standards, development of in-house technology and equipment for 5G, and development of local use cases.

5G is a platform for innovation. It enables new services like IoT for consumers, enterprises and industry. The healthcare, manufacturing, automotive and energy/ utilities sectors present the biggest revenue generating opportunities for 5G service providers. Ericsson anticipates that by 2030, up to $700 billion of 5G-enabled business-to-business value could be addressed by service providers. In India, the projected value of 5G-enabled digitalisation revenues will be approximately $17 billion by 2030. It is with the aim of tapping this opportunity that an increased emphasis is being laid on the development of a robust local 5G ecosystem.

The goal of the “going local” movement is to put India on the global leaders’ board as far as 5G is concerned. The development of local use cases would enable India to increase the number of indigenous intellectual property rights around 5G.

The 5G standard localisation debate

One of the key issues that have grasped the industry’s attention is that of developing local 5G standards for India. It seems to have started somewhere around 2017 when TSDSI had proposed the adoption of low mobility large cell (LMLC) technology as a mandatory test configuration under the rural enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) test environment for 5G. TSDSI had noted that LMLC technology will play a key role in the deployment and proliferation of 5G in rural and remote areas as it can enhance the signal transmission range of base stations and improve the battery life of mobile phones, both of which are essential for rural connectivity. Owing to LMLC’s promise to drive 5G coverage, the 3GPP committee had accepted this modification in 5G standards.

Two years later, the TSDSI proposed further enhancements in LMLC technology via the incorporation of its indigenously developed radio interface technology (RIT). To this end, it requested 3GPP to reserve some resources (pool of bits) in its specifications so as to enable TSDSI to port India-specific features outside 3GPP. However, 3GPP rejected TSDSI’s request stating that such resources will be required to incorporate new features into the future releases of 5G.

This did not deter TSDSI. After 3GPP rejected its proposal, it approached ITU and has since been engaged in running tests and streamlining its technology. Recently, TSDSI announced that its RIT has satisfied all qualifying criteria for the IMT-2020 technical performance requirements at ITU. TSDSI will now continue to work on its proposal until the process is complete later in 2020. According to TSDSI, after the completion of the standardisation process, it will facilitate the necessary post-standardisation activities in order to enable the implementation of rural coverage enhancing proposed modifications in the equipment that will begin to be deployed in the country in the coming years. And this is where the bone of contention lies.

While TSDSI has claimed that RIT can greatly benefit countries that face the challenge of providing broadband wireless coverage in rural and remote areas, telecom gear and chipset makers are of the view that TSDSI’s achievement is just academic in nature with little use for them. In fact, in February 2020, the Global Mobile Supplier Association (GSA) wrote to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), stating that TSDSI’s decision of creating local 5G standards will lead to interoperability issues between devices and networks. The GSA was also of the view that the deployment of the regional standard deviates from the harmonised global core specification (GCS) deployed within 3GPP and therefore, will pose several challenges.

In India too, TSDSI has met with severe criticism of its localisation move. For instance, COAI believes that TSDSI’s push for further modification will not add much value to the already approved local specifications of the global 5G standards. On the contrary, it might delay India’s ability to roll out 5G by two years.

Various industry analysts too believe that this modification will have more repercussions than benefits for the country. For instance, the development of India-specific standards would result in the making of India-specific products and services. While this might give a boost to domestic manufacturing, it will reduce competition, hamper the market forces of demand and supply, and diminish the possibility of innovation. Not only will this adversely impact end consumers, but it will also affect other stakeholders working in the industry such as companies working on 5G-dependent technology solutions like IoT, AI, AR, VR and connected cars.

Developing 5G in-house

Parallel to the localisation of 5G standards, another development seems to be taking place in this space. Recently, in March 2020, Reliance Jio announced that it has developed its own 5G technology as it is planning to reduce the dependence on foreign vendors and bring in cost-related advantages. As per industry sources, Jio has already replaced 4G voice technology of Nokia and Oracle with its own.

Building on this, Jio has designed its own hardware for 5G technology, which could be made in India once 5G trials are successful, along with IoT gear. To this end, the telco has sought DoT’s approval to conduct 5G trials based on its own technology. The government on its part has been pushing Indian telecom players to build 5G technology in-house. To this end, Ericsson has already put in place a model, under which equipment designed abroad is manufactured in India, and has also set up plants in the country for this purpose.

Developing local use cases

Whether developed in-house or outsourced from other global players, sooner or later 5G will come to India. And when it comes, it will be accompanied by a host of opportunities for players across the board. However, the effective capitalisation of these opportunities would require extensive development of local 5G use cases.

According to COAI, the government should facilitate the creation of indigenous IPR around 5G by developing local use cases in collaboration with start-ups and businesses. The industry body is of the view that the government should use the intermediate time between now and when it sells 5G spectrum to carry out the groundwork for 5G. This work can be related to the development of India-specific solutions around the network and usage.

Telecom service providers and vendors have been pushing the pedal as far as the development of 5G use cases is concerned. In a recently held meeting with DoT, they apprised the board that they had been developing use cases in domains like healthcare, education, agriculture, surveillance and enhanced mobile broadband and fixed wireless access.

In fact, telecom network companies such as Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia have announced that they have been developing use cases in areas like manufacturing, gaming, immersive technologies and healthcare. Meanwhile, in December 2019, Qualcomm announced that it was working closely with Reliance Jio Infocomm, Flipkart and Amazon India to develop India-relevant 5G use cases. The company stated that it will be using a portion of its recently launched $200 million global venture capital fund. The funds will be used to support Indian start-ups that are working towards the development of 5G-specific applications.

The way forward

While the subject of developing local standards for 5G is being heavily debated and various schools of thought exist around it, the issue of developing in-house technology and equipment for 5G is comparatively recent. As such, there seems to be some degree of consensus towards this development. However, going forward, there is a possibility of a debate around how localisation of 5G technology might curb innovation and curtail healthy competition.

While a domestic-centred approach to growth comes with benefits like providing an impetus to domestic industries and promoting self-reliance for the country, the underlying ill effects of it cannot be overlooked. This promotion of self-reliance should not come at the cost of innovation and ability of the end user to exercise the right to choose. Competition is essential for growth and any future decision or plan of the government should be based on this premise.

By Diksha Sharma