Four Telecom Service Providers in India have been permitted to conduct 5G trials. The government expects that the 5G service will likely be rolled out in 2022-23. But what are the major issues associated with the 5G rollout in India, discussed in the Parliamentary Standing Committee report on India’s 5G rollout? Here is a review.
There is a growing recognition on the role of telecommunications in the socio-economic development of a nation. In fact, the internet and communication systems form the bedrock of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4.0). The pace and the scope of this fourth industrial revolution are unprecedented. Adoption of many new technologies could disrupt the existing business arrangements and have a profound impact across multiple dimensions – our identity, government, and governance structures, and the future business models. The Industrial Revolution (IR) 4.0 is different from the earlier revolutions in the sense that it is more pervasive, and it has the capability to disrupt almost any industry.
One of the basic prerequisites that decide the success of IR 4.0 is the speed and the spread of internet services. The latest addition to the global telecommunication ecosystem is the 5G technology. This is distinctive from the earlier mobile networks in the way that its scope extends beyond just mobile broadband. It provides significant capability improvements over the earlier networks in terms of speed, reliability, efficiency, and latency. Globally, 209 operators in eighty-three countries have already deployed a 5G network. India had also envisioned the early adoption and deployment of the 5G network way back in 2018 to compete and stay ahead in the global technological race.
So, where are we right now? What is the status regarding 5G in India? Is it on the right and intended track? We answer these questions in this story by looking at India’s preparedness for 5G and a few critical issues that must be addressed during this transition. The key data references for this story are the 21st report of the Standing Committee on Information Technology (2020-21), the 36th report of the Standing Committee on the action taken on recommendations from the 21st report (2021-22), the report of the 5G High level Forum (2018), and parliamentary questions.
India and 5G, Status of 5G trials
India’s tryst with innovation in the telecommunication ecosystem is mired with delays. As a result, India had always ended up deploying technologies slower than the rest of the world. India’s 2G deployment was in 1995, while the global deployment was in 1991. Similar is the case with 3G and 4G, where India’s deployments were in 2008 & 2015, while the global deployments were in 1998 and 2008, respectively. The latest 5G global deployment was done in 2019, whereas India is yet to start the deployment. In response to a question in the Lok Sabha in February 2022, the Government stated that the launch of 5G services in India by the Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) is likely during 2022-23. A total of six proposals for 5G technology trails were received from Indian and global TSPs including China’s ZTE and Huawei, but permissions were granted to M/s Vodafone Idea Ltd., M/s Bharti Airtel Ltd., M/s Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited, and M/s Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd. for conducting 5G trails in India. The standing committee expressed its concern over the delay in launching 5G services and asked the department to undertake a review of the policies relating to 5G and to conduct a study of the experiences of different countries that have successfully rolled out 5G services.
Transitioning to a 5G network is not a standalone process. It requires a whole lot of infrastructural changes that are to be set up to ensure a seamless transition. The High-Level Forum for 5G in India also had made recommendations to ensure the efficient rollout of 5G in India. These recommendations were categorized according to their content – spectrum policy, regulatory policy, case-use labs, education, awareness, and so on. The following sections will deal with the recommendations of this forum, along with the concerns raised by the standing committee and the response of the government to those concerns.
Radio Spectrum is a crucial resource and is very scarce. It is important to have an encouraging spectrum policy. Currently, the 5G is available in three bandwidths:
- Lower Band: 700 MHz band
- Mid Band: 3300-3600 MHz
- mmWave Band: 26 GHz and 28GHz.
The mid-band is where the largest number of operators (82) have deployed their 5G service, followed by the mmWave band (8), and the lower band (7). Indian Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) recommended that Mid-band could be used for expanding the 5G network in India. The High-level forum on 5G suggested that the release of the spectrum should be made in 3 tiers:
- Announce Tier – To bring certainty to the 5G ecosystem, certain bands must be declared to be available.
- Identify Tier – These have the potential for 5G use in the future.
- Study Tier- These to explore the potential availability of bands for 5G use.
During the deliberations, the committee observed that the availability of spectrum is limited to the extent of 175 MHz only in 3300-3600 MHz, and this shortfall in the availability could hamper the service provisioning as well as cause underutilization of infrastructure. The Government, upon deliberations with the Department of Space and Ministry of Defence, made certain recommendations on the band range. The committee asked the government to coordinate with TRAI and translate these recommendations into fruitful actions depending on their merit.
Spectrum is a scarce resource whose sub-optimal utilization could not only result in economic losses but also disrupt the growth of a nation. Considering its strategic importance, the TRAI has recommended the audit of the allocated spectrum – both government as well as commercial. This must be done on a regular basis by an independent audit agency. While the Standing committee appreciated the acknowledgment by the government of the need for an independent audit, it had also expressed serious displeasure at the government’s lackadaisical approach to the spectrum audit. It restated its earlier recommendation to ensure that the audit is conducted regularly by a specialized agency at the earliest possible and share the findings with the committee.
Apart from the availability of the spectrum, affordability plays a crucial role in the success of the 5G network. The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) had earlier submitted that the reserve price of Rs. 492 Crores as recommended by the TRAI is way higher than any other country. Similarly, the Telecom Equipment Manufacturers Association of India (TEMA) had also pointed out the flawed inverted structure of the spectrum policy. One of the Telecom operators, Bharti Airtel presented a comparative statement of TRAI’s recommended pricing with the pricing in other countries, where Indian pricing is exorbitantly higher. TRAI, in its defence, claimed that considering the rollout plan of 5G and the population covered by it, the pricing policy is moderate. The committee was also apprised of various measures taken by the Department to ease the burden of greater spectrum cost. The Committee recommended that there is a need to re-examine the spectrum pricing policy, given the divergent and conflicting views by both sides. However, the Committee was disappointed to note that no action has been taken by the Department/TRAI on the recommendations. It was concerned that the pricing policy could become unsustainable in the future and cause further stress to the telecom sector. The Committee reiterated its opinion that higher spectrum price should neither become a deterrent for 5G adoption nor place an excess financial burden on the service providers, and all efforts must be made to ensure this.
Domestic Manufacturing of Telecom Equipment & 5G handsets
Ensuring an adequate supply of equipment is critical to the success of the 5G rollout. And given the security concerns raised about foreign equipment and operators, it is imperative to focus on domestic production of the equipment and technology that is needed. Consequently, the committee recommended that a Telecom Research and Development Fund (TRDF) is to be created at the earliest with an initial corpus of Rs. 1000 Crores. Additionally, it recommended that a proper eco-system must be enabled to facilitate domestic production and adoption of such technology and equipment. However, the committee expressed displeasure with the Department for not providing clarity on various measures and concerns raised by the stakeholders. It desired that necessary action would be taken.
Harmonization of Indian and Global Standards
Reducing inequities and providing universal coverage should be the aim of any network rollout. This could be achieved through adopting standards that allow for interoperability and roaming while providing economies of scale concurrently. India has developed TSDSI RIT standards which are not globally harmonized while the global industry follows 3rd Generation Partnership Project(3GPP) Standards. Even though the committee was apprised of the potential of TSDSI RIT (to enhance rural coverage at lower costs), it cautioned the department to adopt only those standards that are globally harmonized and ensure that India does not get itself disconnected from the global network ecosystem. The committee found that the reply of the department was evasive and did not address the matters put forth by the TSPs and COAI. It is hoped that these issues will be considered in a transparent manner and make sure that the faith of stakeholders in the telecom sector remains intact.
Development of 5G use case labs
To take a lead in 5G deployment, the Department has set up an indigenous 5G test bed worth Rs. 224 Crores to help the industry in validating their products. The committee expressed happiness to see the collaboration between the best institutes in India to make the end-to-end open 5G testbed a reality. At the same time, the committee recommended developing more sector-specific use-case labs and to develop a Digital Readiness Index, monitored by a cross-sectoral entity like NITI Aayog. The Committee expressed displeasure at the pace of the development of 5G use case labs and it asked the government to provide adequate incentives to ensure the development of more such use case labs in a shorter time.
5G and Health concerns
The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) publishes recommendations for minimising electromagnetic field exposure. The committee was briefed about the adoption of such guidelines and the level of stringency of the norms adopted. It was also informed that no study or research regarding the health and environmental impacts of 5G came to the notice of the government. TRAI had released a consultation paper on the approach towards sustainable telecommunications. Additionally, since the 5G rollout is in a nascent stage, the Committee feared that the potential of the health impacts can become clearer only after the complete adoption of 5G in the future. Based on the representations received, it is recommended that the department must be watchful of any other scientific studies that emerge in the future regarding the health impacts of 5G. It also suggested budgetary allocation to conduct India-specific research to study such impacts.
- Recognizing the potential of telecommunications in national growth, the committee felt that fibre should be declared a national asset, and a well-defined fibre sharing policy needs to be formulated. This is of utmost importance considering the low percentage of fiberization. In response to a parliament question in March 2022, the Government stated that as of 31 December 2021, only 34.2% of the total Base Transceiver Station (BTSs) are fiberized. India also initiated the world’s largest rural fibre-optic roll-outs through ‘Bharat Net.’ This also complements the National Broadband Mission, launched in December 2019, with an aim to provide ‘Broadband for all’. Additionally, to aid in the fibre-laying, the committee recommended that provisions regarding the ‘Right of Way’ should be uniform across the states by adopting suitable changes in legislations.
- The Government informed the committee regarding the consideration by the department on declaring fibre as a national asset by suitably amending the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 and the department is working on defining the contours of the National Fibre Authority (NFA) as envisaged in the National Digital Communications Policy-2018.
- Regarding the security concerns of the 5G, the Committee felt that there is a clear need to examine critically the need for important services to be hosted in India so that user data and information may be kept secure on Indian soil, as long as this does not obstruct India’s access to global services. It is also recommended for the earliest adoption of the Indian Telecom Security Assurance Requirement.
Summing it up, while the progress has been satisfactory, a lot of ground is yet to be covered to ensure the efficient rollout of the 5G network in India. In any case, India should not miss the 5G technology bus, unlike the previous rollouts.
Featured Image: Parliamentary Standing Committee report on India’s 5G rollout