Randeep Raina, Chief Technology Officer, Nokia

Unlike other technologies, 5G requires a complete transformation of telecom architecture and a whole new ecosystem in terms of spectrum, infrastructure, devices and applications. Globally, 5G launches are under way, and India too is gearing up to usher in the 5G era. However, to truly benefit from the technology, the country must overcome certain challenges. In an interview with tele.net, Randeep Raina, chief technology officer, Nokia, talks about India’s readiness to roll out 5G, the key requirements and challenges, and the technology and network trends that will shape the future of the telecom sector in India…

How prepared is India to usher in the 5G revolution?

From a spectrum availability point of view, India is well prepared for 5G. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) under the recommendations of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has decided to make spectrum available in the 3.5 GHz and 700 MHz bands, like several other countries globally.

From an ecosystem readiness standpoint, most of the advanced telecom markets across the world have launched commercial 5G services and India can leverage their experience. For instance, India can take lessons on technology scale-up from Korea and North America, which have already launched 5G services, and from Japan, China and other key European and Asia-Pacific markets that will initiate the services soon. Similarly, the device ecosystem in terms of affordability and availability is already developed fast, and given the pace at which 5G services are being rolled out globally, India can use this as an advantage.

Use case readiness is also important as this is where the monetisation part comes in. DoT recently announced a 5G hackathon, inviting companies to come and exhibit some of the India-specific use cases of the technology. We at Nokia have done our bit by setting up a 5G test bed and a 5G use case lab for developing use cases relevant to India together with our partners.

A big aspect of the 5G future in India is its financial implication in terms of telcos’ appetite to participate and bid in auctions. There is a lot of uncertainty right now owing to the adjusted gross revenue (AGR)-related payouts. Since the case is still under arbitration, it is difficult to predict how operators plan to move ahead to acquire 5G spectrum.

Similarly, infrastructure readiness is critical to the success of 5G in India. Operators have already started to virtualise their core network in a big way, which is a prerequisite for 5G. On the backhaul front, we have seen operators scale up their infrastructure, either by adding fibre to their network or through additional spots of microwave. That said, the backhaul capacity is not sufficient as fibre has not yet penetrated to the last mile. Alternate means of transporting backhaul such as E and V bands will also be explored.

Private LTE deployments are growing across the world. What is your outlook for its adoption in India?

In India, the mindset of enterprises is definitely changing. During 2019, we engaged with our enterprise customers to raise awareness regarding the value and enhancements that the technology can bring either in terms of productivity gains or in terms of efficiency. We believe that private LTE will bring about a significant change in manufacturing. We are also seeing interest from other industries such as mining, aviation, transportation and warehousing, and hospitality.

Private LTE is already seeing adoption in greenfield projects. For instance, the use of the private LTE network is being considered and explored as a new means of connectivity for upcoming greenfield projects and for modernising brownfield projects to leverage the technological gains.

What is Nokia doing in this domain?

At Nokia, we have already upgraded our Chennai factory, which is currently operating on private LTE network connectivity. We are now looking to expand and showcase this to key industries, together with our partners and enterprise customers so that interested enterprises  can leverage its benefit, generate productivity gains and effectively compete in the market. We are establishing the link between operators and enterprises for the adoption of Industry 4.0 by deploying private LTE networks in India.

We have a complete end-to-end solution portfolio, which encompasses all of the network connectivity aspects for example radio, core,  transport network, backhaul, optics, software and professional services which are becoming critical for an enterprise to move from its current Wi-Fi or Ethernet network to LTE-based connectivity solutions. We have been making markets as well as telecom service providers aware of what technology can do. We have opened our manufacturing hubs and R&D centres to our operator partners to demonstrate how 4G can work as a connectivity layer for enterprises in addition to consumer-led services.  Once operators acquire 5G spectrum, it will just be a matter of time that the infrastructure will be made 5G ready.

What are some of the key challenges as far as the 5G ecosystem is concerned? Do you have a regulatory wish list?

  • Spectrum allocation and pricing: It is important that while defining a 5G spectrum policy, spectrum of almost 100 MHz must be allocated to ensure a sustainable business. Further, spectrum pricing has to be reasonable.
  • Backhaul: 5G promises big improvements in latency, which requires robust backhaul. Since fibre cannot reach all the sites, the government must look into alternate means of transport, such as spectrum in the V band. 5G will also require several small cells.
  • Standardisation: India must participate more in global forums like 3GPP to ensure that it is harmonised with the global ecosystem, and to leverage the established vendor and device markets for faster and better time-to-market. This is very essential for faster service roll-outs and to make the 5G technological benefits available to consumers and industry in a seamless manner, harmonised fully with global scale and technological adoptions.

Given the push for 5G, what is your outlook for 4G services in the near to medium term?

Nokia has a promising outlook for 4G in India. First, smartphone penetration in India is still at 50-55 per cent and 4G will be crucial for incremental capacity as the penetration grows. Second, given its demographics and data demand, India cannot be satisfied by 5G alone. In our recently published MBiT report it has been highlighted that data traffic in India has grown around 44 times between 2015 and 2019. Given these factors, we feel 4G still has a solid forecast of 7-10 years of active life in India.

Also, being a critical service, 5G will probably not be launched at a nationwide level in a single shot, as is evident from the 5G launches globally so far. It is likely to follow the same trend as seen in 3G and 4G, where the technologies were specific to certain markets initially and only after launches and device penetration push in key markets, mass adoption started.

Going forward, what are the key network and technology trends that will shape the Indian telecom sector?

Evolution of existing 4G networks: We are seeing the industry move towards 4.9G with advanced functionalities. The increased demand for connectivity amongst enterprises viz Industry 4.0 push will bring in a new stream of opportunities initiated through 4.5/4.9G connectivity.

  • Cloudification of networks: It has already started in telcos’ core networks. Soon the industry will be moving towards the edge rather than just being at the centralised core or distributed core, which will also be critical for 5G. We will see the mushrooming of the edge clouds, as there is more demand for faster content and enhanced consumer experience.
  • Narrowband IoT: Even as there are discussions around 5G-based IoT, we still feel there is scope for narrowband IoT in India. It will find use cases for businesses that have dedicated capacity, and also for retail customers in the form of smart home applications.
  • Industry 4.0: This is another key trend that is emerging fast on the back of global adoption. Telcos and partners like us are making enterprises aware of the benefits. Enterprises will be increasingly adopting private LTE solutions in their journey towards Industry 4.0, and leveraging 5G as the ecosystem matures for such industries.
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning: Machine-based network management and service delivery is expected to gain traction as it promises a more personalised user and network operations experience.

Other key trends include getting 5G ready. Further, there will be a requirement for transport modernisation with high capacity backhaul solutions. Also, developing  robust security infrastructure will become an essential and integral part of 5G.