The Indian telecom sector is all set to begin the commercial roll-out of 5G networks, after almost a week-long 5G spectrum auction process. According to the Ericsson Mobility Report 2022, 5G is expected to account for nearly 40 per cent of all subscriptions in India by 2027. Fur­ther, 56 per cent of the total mobile data traffic in the country will be carried by 5G networks in 2027. This data represents the massive opportunity that 5G presents for the Indian telecom market.

The advent of 5G is not only going to benefit consumers but also enterprises in a big way. Recognising this, stakeholders including the government, telecom operators, telecom equipment manufacturers and infrastructure players had started working much before the 5G spectrum auctions to establish a robust 5G ecosystem. All these stakeholders have been collaborating to test use cases that can truly expand India’s digital horizon by leaps and bounds.

A look at the emerging use cases of 5G technology in the Indian market…

Government encourages trials of 5G use cases

The government, particularly the Depart­ment of Telecommunications (DoT) and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), has been playing an instrumental role in enabling stakeholders to test various India-specific use cases. DoT began conducting preliminary meetings on 5G spectrum trials with telecom service providers (TSPs) and equipment vendors in 2020 to get a status update on their preparedness and expectations from the government. In the meeting, stakeholders also proposed several use cases in domains such as healthcare, education, agriculture, surveillance and enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) and fixed wireless access (FWA). Post this, DoT consulted with Wireless Pl­a­nning and Coordination (WPC) to discuss spectrum allocation. After the WPC approval, DoT allocated trial spectrum to its licensees, TSPs, which then chose to partner with telecom equipment vendors.

Later, around end 2020, DoT constituted working groups that would explore the implementation of 5G across eight different sectors, including agriculture, fintech, transportation, education, water and sewage management, Industry 4.0 and sm­art grids. The Telecommunication En­gi­neering Centre led the task of preparing reports on these use cases.

In March 2022, DoT announced that it is setting up test labs in collaboration with 14 other ministries and departments to explore 5G use cases for the respective de­partments. To this end, DoT stated that it will be conducting focused interactive sessions on digital use cases/applications le­veraging communication technologies such as 5G/4G-Advanced and internet of things (IoT). The expected outcomes of these sessions were going to be possible collaborations among stakeholders (solution provi­ders, user agencies and original equipment manufacturers to conduct pilots for reasonably matured 5G use cases.

TRAI too has been active in this domain. Recently, in July 2022, it initiated pilot testing of 5G networks in Bhopal Sm­art City, GMR International Airport in New Delhi, Deendayal Port in Kandla and Namma Metro Bangalore to test the use of street furniture for small cells and aerial fibre deployment. TSPs including Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio, Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited participated in these pilot tests at different locations. According to TRAI, these pilot tests will be helpful to make cross-sectoral infrastructure more accessible for the quick roll-out of 5G networks for telcos.

Another key step that the government undertook recently has been offering the use of indigenous 5G testbed free of cost to government-recognised start-ups and micro, small and medium enterprises up to January 2023 to boost the 5G ecosystem in India. It is available at a very nominal rate to all other stakeholders. DoT has strongly urged all 5G stakeholders including in­dustry, academia, service providers, resear­ch and development institutions, government bodies and equipment manufacturers to utilise 5G testbed facilities and expertise to test and facilitate the speedy development and deployment of their products.

Telcos push the pedal

Telecom operators too have been actively testing numerous India-specific 5G use cases ranging from healthcare, industrial automation, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).

In the healthcare domain, Vi conducted a trial on testing how 5G connectivity can enable access to healthcare in remote parts of the country, in partnership with Ericsson. Under the trial, the high data sp­eed, low latency and reliability of 5G en­abled a doctor located in an urban centre to carry out an ultrasound scan on a pa­tient who was in a remote rural location. As part of the ongoing demonstrations, Vi and Ericsson also demonstrated the eMBB and FWA use cases of 5G. Further, Airtel entered into partnership with Apollo Hos­pitals and Cisco to create a 5G connected ambulance. The demonstration was conducted in Bengaluru over the 5G trial spectrum allotted to Airtel by DoT. The custom-designed state-of-the-art 5G connected ambulance was equipped with the latest medical equipment, patient monitoring applications and telemetry devices that transmit the patient’s health data to the hospital in real time.

All three private operators have also been actively testing other 5G use cases. For instance, Reliance Jio has done active trials of 5G use cases ranging from AR/ VR, network slicing, connected hospitals and industrial applications. The key use cases demonstrated by Jio include eMBB, FWA, 5G-enabled drones, cloud gaming, 8K YouTube video streaming, virtual collaboration, immersive experience, Jio Glass, 5G robotics, healthcare applicatio­ns, Jio Apps over 5G, IoT-based monitoring for energy management and smart home solutions.

Over the past one year, Airtel too has tested several use cases with multiple partners at many locations. These include demonstrating India’s first 5G experience over a live 4G network in Hyderabad; conducting a rural 5G trial; testing the first cloud gaming experience on 5G and the deployment of India’s first captive private network on the trial spectrum. In March 2022, the telco used cutting edge immersive video technologies over its high speed 5G test network, to recreate the in-stadia experience of Kapil Dev’s famous 175 not out vs Zimbabwe, during the 1983 Cricket World Cup. A special video in 4K mode brought key moments from the match to life, which had no video footage due to a strike by TV technicians. Further, Airtel has also tested cloud gaming and 8K video streaming on commercially available 5G sm­artphones, along with immersive VR-based experiences using VR devices. The demonstration was showcased at the Bengal Global Trade Expo 2022 (BGTE 2022) in Kolkata Science City. The telco said it also showcased the connected factory with automated manufacturing and qu­ality inspection using the high-speed low latency of 5G. In addition, it demonstrated the drone-based inventory management that promises to transform manufacturing and supply chains.

Meanwhile, Vi tested Industry 4.0 and smart mobile edge computing in collaboration with A5G Networks Inc. Under the trial, Vi and A5G Networks together set up a pilot private network in Mumbai, uti­lising the existing 4G spectrum and showcased industrial automation use cases, en­terprise applications and low latency scenarios. In July 2022, Vi conducted a trial on the use of street furniture for small cells and aerial fibre deployment at Namma Metro, Bengaluru, as part of the TRAI’s pilot project. In this pilot, Vi demonstrated a 5G download speed of 1.2 Gbps on a mobile handset at MG Road station. The trial targeted 5G coverage at the road level, in its concourse area, platform and tracks on both sides. The learnings of this project will be used for 5G deployment in other metro rails in the country. Addi­tionally, Vi also conducted trials on the use of street furniture for small cells and aerial fibre deployment at Bhopal Smart City, New Delhi International Airport and Kandla Port in Gujarat. Vi also demonst­rated 5G voice over new radio (VoNR) with its technology partner Nokia, during 5G trials in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. Once deployed, the VoNR solution will enable Vi to offer its subscribers high-definition voice experience over 5G, as well as several advanced voice applications and use ca­ses in the future.

The way forward

Net net, stakeholders across the Indian telecom domain have been actively testing 5G use cases that would help the country in unlocking new digital applications. As telcos finally leapfrog into the 5G world, it will be interesting to see how the entire 5G ecosystem, comprising innovative use cases, shapes up in the country.