Even as the Indian telecom industry is grappling with a 4G data explosion, intense competition and serious consolidation, 5G has emerged as the new focus area. All industry stakeholders are gearing up for 5G even as the country is yet to witness mass uptake of 4G. Ope­ra­tors who have jumped on to the 4G bandwagon and are yet to make significant inroads into Tier II and Tier III geographies are already planning for 5G a few years down the line.

The Indian government is at the forefront of developing the 5G ecosystem. It has started identifying and formalising the standards for 5G roll-out, which are expected to be released by 2018. The government is also planning to put up spectrum for sale in the 3400-3600 MHz band, which will be used for the launch of 5G services. It has also asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to suggest a reserve price for 5G airwaves, which can be offered in the next auction alongside 4G bandwidth. Further, the Department of Electronics and IT has earmarked an investment of Rs 1 billion in 5G research and technologies during 2017-18.

There are several reasons for the Indian telecom industry’s increased interest in the 5G space. First, 5G will serve as the primary catalyst in the the country’s ambitious Digital India vision and the Smart Cities Mission. The true potential of the internet-of-things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) phenomenon will only be unleashed by deploying fast speed future networks enabled by 5G technology. According to Sanjay Kaul, managing director, service provider business, Cisco, India and SAARC, “5G will inc­rease connectivity and mobility manyfold, which means we can plot a future where IoT, M2M and artificial intelligence are mainstream, and connectivity is seamless, designed to improve the quality of e-governance and education, as well as to enable financial inclusion, smart cities and an intelligent transportation system. 5G will emerge as a lifestyle enabler and start an era where productivity will inc­rease multifold as machines start to communicate with each other.”

The internet ecosystem, which delivers super high speeds, is becoming the order of the day globally, and India is catching up with the trend. According to Amit Marwah, head of end-to-end sales solutioning, Nokia India, “Traditionally, India has been a relatively late adopter and behind the rest of the world from a technology evolution perspective. However, this is changing fast with data consumption in India surpassing the rest of the world, and the largest is voice over long term evolution (LTE) deployment taking place in India. We hope that the adoption of 5G will be at a much faster pace than that of 4G and 3G.”

Early steps: Industry initiatives

The shift towards a digital way of life in India is the single largest driver pushing the operators to include 5G in future gr­ow­th strategies.  5G technology can of­fer download speeds of up to 20 Gbps, almost twenty times higher than what 4G can offer. Several operators in India have started collaborating with leading vendors to discover the course of 5G introduction.

Bharti Airtel has partnered with Nokia to create a strategic roadmap for the development of 5G technology in India. The operator will leverage Nokia’s 5G solutions including the radio access portfolio and the data centre platform to demonstrate 5G capabilities and simulate use cases. The two companies will also leverage their combined expertise to define a phased strategy for network evolution and 5G spectrum assessments to optimise spectrum resources.

Nokia has also been selected by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) to accelerate the development of the 5G ecosystem in India. Through this partnership, Nokia will help transition BSNL’s network to make it future-ready. BSNL will leverage Nokia’s 5G-ready product portfolio to develop use cases for both enterprise and retail customers. Nokia will also help BSNL in spectrum assessment and opti­misation to deliver 5G capabilities.

The companies will also utilise technologies such as software-defined networking, multi-access edge computing and cloud to help BSNL leverage the opportunities of the programmable world.

Meanwhile, Samsung is undertaking an infill and growth project for Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited, wherein the technology giant will not only expand the operator’s current network capacity and coverage, but will also create new opportunities for LTE-Advanced Pro and 5G deployment. The new Vodafone-Idea mer­ger is also expected to play a big role in bringing 5G technology to the country.

Nokia has established its 5G and IoT experience centre in Bengaluru, where it is working with industry stakeholders to develop 5G use cases. It plans to introduce its 4.9G technologies by end-2017. These will allow operators to enhance their network performance and manage the signi­ficantly higher infrastructure demands. A 4.9G massive Adaptive Antenna will increase cell capacity by up to five ti­mes. Meanwhile, Cisco is getting 5G-ready by devising analytics-based dyn­amic and agile networks that will leve­r­age cloud and virtualisation to deliver futuristic IoT solutions. It is also creating a next-generation 5G rou­ter and is actively involved in defining the standards, requirements and leading enga­ge­­ments involved in the evolution from 4G/LTE to 5G networks.

Further, China-based ZTE Corpo­ration has unveiled 5G innovations for its Indian telecom partners. It has launched Pre5G solutions, which will help the industry transition from 4G to 5G, and upgrade to 5G networks with a combination of Giga+ MBB, massive IoT and cloudisation, etc. Ericsson has also relea-sed its 5G radio solutions for the Indian market, which will help operators deploy 5G plug-i­­­ns in the existing 4G networks. It has also established a test centre at the Indian Institute of Tech­no­logy, Delhi, and testing will be launched during the second half of 2017.

However, the current state of operator finances and profitability may prove to be a big roadblock. While the government aspires to leapfrog to 5G in a bid to stay ahead on the global technology curve, bidding for 5G spectrum in the near future will be financially unviable for operators.

5G timeline

The recent operator interest in 5G comes at a time when the 4G service eco­sys­­tem is still evolving. However, according to Marwah, “The path to 5G will complement the current mobile broadband (MBB) technologies and the time is right to start this journey towards a better connected future. Whe­ther it is about the evolution of spectrum, the transformation of networks, the ability to connect billions of things, or supporting the massive ba­ck­­­haul needs emerging from data explosi­on, it is the right time to plan for future networks.”

5G will serve as the primary catalyst in the the country’s ambitious Digital India vision and the Smart Cities Mission. The true potential of the IoT and M2M phenomenon will only be unleashed by deploying fast speed future networks.

At present, 5G is in the standardisation phase globally. The groundwork for 5G roll-outs is expected to be completed in 2017, with field assessments, applications and content trials to begin in 2018. The commercialisation of the technology is expected to happen around 2020 globally. India may take a further year or two to commercialise and deploy these services.

“Several telecom companies are curr­e­n­t­ly working with equipment makers in upg­r­­­­­a­ding their infrastructure and bringing 5G to the country. Going forward, significant in­­­v­e­stment is required to build advanced 5G networks, along with solutions to address high costs, spectrum availability and a robust architectural backbone,” says K­a­ul.

As a technology, 5G could prove to be a game changer in the Indian telecom industry, given its multiple use cases. For instance, operators can look at using 5G for rural connectivity and agricultural IoT. Further, it will offer benefits of ultra-broadband, low latency of 1 metre per second and massive M2M capabilities. It is also likely to contribute significantly to operator profitability in the future. Despite the surge in data traffic on their networks, Indian operators are struggling to generate revenue. Accor­ding to an Ericsson report, 5G-enabled digitisation revenues in India will be $25.9 billion by 2026. Indian operators can generate additional revenues of $13 billion if they take up roles beyond connectivity and infrastructure providers and become service enablers and service creators. The biggest opportunity will be seen in sectors such as manufacturing, energy and utilities, followed by public safety and health. Most importantly, 5G has the potential to transform the Digital India vision into a reality.