In the race towards 5G commercialisation, stakeholders across the telecom domain have stepped up their efforts to enable the transition. While operators are pushing the pedal on trials, the government on its part is taking steps to offer regula­tory support by making available the required spectrum. The device ecosystem for 5G is also maturing with time. Going forward, there is a need to create a fav­ourable network and testing environment. The roll-out of 5G is expected to open up a plethora of opportunities for various stakeholders.

A look at the key trends enabling the transition to 5G technology…

Market overview and key trends

The recent edition of the Ericsson Mo­bility Report estimates that 5G will acc­ount for nearly half of all mobile subscriptions by 2027. It seems quite straightforward to expect continued growth of 5G subscriptions, and thereby traffic-per-de­vice growth. Further, as 5G population coverage increases, we could expect some new, disruptive events that take advantage of 5G capabilities in totally new ways, be it with new devices, business models or applications.

Moreover, the report states that 5G is estimated to cover over 2 billion people in 2021 with the buildout of 5G networks continuing to accelerate, and more than 180 commercial 5G network launches witnessed across the world. In fact, 5G is expected to be the fastest deployed mobile communication technology in history, and is forecast to cover about 75 per cent of the world’s population by 2027.

As far as revenue metrics are concerned, the global revenue from 5G services is expected to increase to more than $600 billion by 2026 and advanced data capabilities will support its adoption in areas such as mobile gaming and immersive reality.

Adoption scenario

In a big move, in early May 2021, the De­partment of Telecommunications gave per­mission to Indian telcos to carry out 5G trials in the country. Following this, the incumbent telcos, in partnership with va­rious vendors, conducted trials on the new-age technology and explored several 5G use cases.

In the telco space, Airtel was in the lead in carrying out live 5G demonstrations over a commercial network in Hy­d­e­ra­bad and became the first telco to conduct 5G trials. Further, Airtel’s 5G trial net­work went live in Gurugram’s Cyber Hub and Mumbai’s Phoenix Mall, among other regions. Besides conducting 5G trials, the operator carried out India’s first cloud gaming session in a 5G-based setting and partnered with TCS to demonstrate 5G-based remote robotic operations and artificial intelligence (AI)-driven quality inspection for factories.

Reliance Jio made giant strides in the 5G domain by conducting many trials and focusing on indigenous manufacturing of 5G equipment. In June 2021, the telco commenced field testing for 5G networks across four circles in the country. The tests were conducted jointly with partners using its own technology and demonstrated sp­eeds more than 1 Gbps. The telco also conducted trials for immersive high-definition virtual reality meeting using its ho­megrown 5G new radio and 5G core network and connected robotics over its indi­genous 5G radio access network (RAN) and 5G SA core network.

To enhance indigenous manufacturing of 5G, Jio Platforms collaborated with Qualcomm Technologies for local manufacturing of 5G-critical equipment in India and started working with original equipment manufacturers on standardising 5G device configurations. It also collaborated with Google Cloud for powering 5G in the enterprise and consumer seg­ments. Further, the operator partnered with Spirent Communications to validate its cloud-native 5G SA core network for real-world workloads and traffic conditions using Spirent Landslide.

Vi too initiated 5G trials in Pune and Gandhinagar to catch up with its peers in the 5G space. Further, the telco deployed several 5G-ready technologies such as ma­s­­sive multiple, input multiple output (MIMO), dynamic spectrum refarming and cloudification of core. Towards the end of the year, Vi, along with its technology partner Nokia, conducted a 5G trial to enhance rural broadband connectivity in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. Around the same time, the operator demonstrated secure network slicing using Nokia’s 5G RAN and 5G core. In its endeavour to promote innovative, home-grown 5G applications, Vi tested 5G-based solutions on the aerial traffic management and motion capture system. In addition, Vi partnered with At­­ho­­net to test 5G-based solutions in several areas including smart construction, smart warehouse, smart agriculture and smart workplace.

Infrastructure requirements

Apart from spectrum needs, 5G has a massive requirement for infrastructure such as small cells, fibre and towers to support such high speed and low latency services. Small cells are an essential component of telcos’ 5G roll-out strategies. 5G deployment requires radio equipment to be clo­ser to the consumer than it is in 3G or 4G networks, which makes small cells a natural fit for 5G roll-out. At present, telcos are focusing on deploying small cells in low frequency bands for delivering improved bandwidth to customers. However, post-2021, the small cell network is expected to expand on the back of internet of things and machine-to-machine technologies. In addition to network densification benefits, small cell deployment offers cost savings to telcos. As per industry analysts, small cells offer savings of about 40 per cent on-site rentals, energy costs, etc.

Moreover, 5G adoption across networks will entail the deployment of high fr­e­quency LTE spectrum such as 50 MHz+ on the 2300 MHz and 2600 MHz bands. This, in turn, would require fibre-based backhaul. New sites will require network densification, including the deployment of small cells and increased fiberisation of tower sites. Operators are actively working towards achieving this goal. In­dian telcos including Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vi have started revamping their backhaul networks to achieve a healthy microwave-fibre mix.

Complementary technologies

There are a number of next-generation technologies that are expected to witness increased traction in the 5G era. For ins­tance, several new communication de­ma­nds will emerge from a range of devices, users and companies. To adequately manage these demands and support a diverse range of services, 5G networks will have to be programmable, flexible, modular and software-driven. In this scenario, software-defined networking will play a key role by enabling network programming. A programmable 5G network will provide service agility by reducing the time for service creation and adaptation, and increasing resource efficiency by allocating the right number of resources wherever needed.

Another disruptive concept that will emerge in the 5G era is network slicing. Through network slicing, a single 5G physical network can be sliced into multiple isolated logical networks of varying sizes and structures, dedicated to different types of services. It will allow operators to create different levels of services for different enterprise verticals, enabling them to customise their operations. The open radio access network (O-RAN) would be key to facilitating the roll-out of 5G networks. Open-RAN enables operators to increase the number of their network in­frastructure partners, and deliver better and more cost-effective 5G networks.

5G network testing and security

Another key requirement for rolling out 5G services is testing. Companies across the testing and measurement (T&M) do­main need to ensure that testing of 5G networks and devices incorporates everything, from standardisation of new pro­cesses to the development and manufacturing of components, wireless devices and base stations.

As the technology behind wireless devices is extremely complex and sophisticated, the telecom sector requires T&M solutions that can help address this complexity with new technology standardisation, product design and production.

Implementation issues

While the overall 5G ecosystem is transitioning, a few key challenges continue to hamper its growth. One of the biggest challenges pertains to the deployment of fibre, especially in India, as the country has a very high number of fibre cuts. Glo­bally, telcos are using cables with 144 and 288 count fibres instead of 48 and 96 cou­nt fibres. In India, if an operator inv­ests in a 288-count fibre cable and if it gets damaged in a couple of years, then the operator cannot draw any reasonable return from the cable. Further, the high price of 5G airwaves in India, unwillingness of us­ers to migrate from 2G or 4G to 5G and the capital expenditure required to deploy a full-scale commercial 5G network are other factors that might deter the deployment of 5G. These challenges, especially those that hamper fiberisation, need to be resolved to ensure speedy commercialisation of 5G services in the country.

Emerging opportunities and future outlook

Going forward, 5G is expected to take more concrete shape as the industry continues to make efforts towards developing a robust ecosystem. As per industry rep­or­ts, the relief package recently announced by the government, coupled with the inc­rease in tariffs announced by incumbent operators, is set to put India back on track to roll out 5G services by 2022. In the coming years, the sector is projected to see Rs 1.3 trillion-Rs 2.3 trillion worth of investments in creating a robust infrastructure and enabling the transition towards 5G.