While 2020 might be remembered as the year of unprecedented disruption to life on a global scale, 2021 has shown immense promise of launching the world towards digital connectivity, especially 5G connectivity. In terms of functional drivers such as speed, low-latency, high availability and energy efficiency, 5G promises 100x-1000x better results. Not just a faster 4G LTE, 5G is one of the most transformative technologies in the history of telecommunications.
Around the world, 5G is gathering speed
Leading technology hubs across the world have been quick to invest and plan for a 5G future. As of February 2021, 5G coverage is present in more than 30% of the world’s countries. GSMA has already forecasted 5G subscriptions to reach 3.5 billion by 2026.
GSMA predicts that 5G technology will add $2.2 trillion to the global economy by 2034. Operators are expected to spend more than $800 billion on 5G network capex between 2020 and 2025. Since its commercial launch in various parts of the world, 5G has created direct impacts, be it by enabling an SK Telecom to launch 5G specialized services like V colouring in 2019 or by powering industrial advances with use cases of industrial automation, artificial intelligence, and IoT across South Korea, China, US and Australia. Bright Machines, a cloud-based software company, reduced defect rates by 88% and improved unit production volume by ~33%.
DataProphet – an AI tech-solutions provider, succeeded in achieving 0% external scrap rate and monthly savings of $120,000-$140,000 in automotive assembly lines. While 5G has seen considerable action over the world since 2019, India has recently joined the party with the government expressing a keen interest in developing 5G for all classes of citizens.
Is India ready for 5G? Well, it is still work-in-progress
According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), India is home to nearly 700 million Internet users and Internet penetration in India stands at nearly 52%. On the same metric, developed countries see rates closer to 80%. Launching 5G requires advanced network preparedness in terms of backhaul fiberisation, access network densification, and more agile architectures.
Here are some indices that reflect India’s current state of preparedness. The Network Readiness Index (NRI) 2020 highlighted India’s standing on access to affordable mobile tariffs over the 74th percentile among 138 countries evaluated. However, on the access to high quality internet in households as well as schools, India has significant room for improvement. Similarly, the Digital Quality of Life Index 2020 by Surfshark also placed India 79th out of 85 countries on the e-infrastructure scale and among the lowest in the world in terms of Internet quality. India did rank high in Internet affordability where the country placed 9th overall, beating the likes of the UK, US and China.These are strong indicators of the price sensitivity of the Indian internet consumer and the immense pressure on Indian operators to be a part of the constant price war mechanism, prevalent in the country.
India saw its first 5G spectrum auctions on 1st March 2021. This is a clear indication of 5G being a priority for the government. Recently, TSDSI’s 5Gi has marked India’s first ever contribution to 5G mobile radio interface technology standards and with it India has assumed a key role in developing 5G standards for the world. The budget for 2021-22 has favoured the Make in India vision by encouraging a higher FDI of 74%. With schemes such as PLI (Production Linked Incentives) incentivizing manufacturing in India, many multinational firms have accelerated establishment of their production facilities in the country. A major factor towards making India ready for 5G involves laying optical fibre for the 5G backhaul network.
While India’s backhaul fibre network stands at ~31%, there are initiatives like Digital India, Bharatnet, Smart Cities mission that are aggressively prioritizing countrywide optical networks to take India to ~80% backhaul fiberization. All top operators are fiberising their networks on the backhaul and access side to get 5G ready. India has also become the destination of choice for developing 5G-specific R&D, solutions, as well as equipment in recent times. Global mobile device companies are also preferring Indian manufacturing as a means to achieving quality, scale and affordability for their handheld devices.
On the infrastructure side, networks are getting modernised with deep fiberisation and open architectures. Collaborations between Indian technology firms like STL (Sterlite Technologies Limited) and open communities like ORAN, ONF, OLAP and TIP have resulted in developing indigenous capability in the Open RAN and 5G space. STL, an industry leading digital networks integrator, currently boasts 460+ patents registered to its name and the company is developing end to end 5G solutions that are completely open source, disaggregated and virtualized.
On the operator side, Bharti Airtel has already begun developing 5G network technologies in India through their own R&D and through collaborations with American and Japanese technology firms likeMavenir, Xilinx, Altiostar, NEC and Sercom. The company plans to take its 5G technology solutions to its markets in Africa, Bangladesh and Srilanka in addition to India. Reliance Jio had already declared in 2020 that it intends to develop its own end to end 5G ecosystem which will serve the 5G needs of Africa, West Asia, Eastern Europe as well as India.
An India-led ecosystem is already bringing 5G solutions for the world
While 5G work in India is underway, India is definitely shaping the global 5G landscape with its technology and innovation orientation. India, the country which has championed scale, affordability and tech talent, has much to offer to the world.
Even before the government’s announcement of Atmanirbhar Bharat and Make in India, several tech firms in the country have built 5G expertise and are providing affordable 5G hardware and software solutions to several players globally. With the PLI scheme, India has managed to attract as many as fourteen new companies who intend to manufacture various telecom equipment, mobile devices and components in India. The country also has a thriving software development community and has constantly featured among the world’s most favoured destinations for software development. Indian technologists lead some of the world’s largest tech firms that have invested heavily in new age concepts of cloud, virtualization and open source.
With over 40000 startup companies already developing solutions that cover a wide range of use cases from healthcare to national defence to digital learning, India provides a unique opportunity for the world to validate solutioning and implementation models for various technologies such as Open RAN, Edge cloud, IoT and AI. Lastly, the presence of Indian technology firms and digital network integrators are ensuring that the requisite optical fibre networks are designed, deployed and managed by a trusted ecosystem of domain experts anywhere across the globe.
Over the decade, India will be a key market to watch out for. It promises to be an essential playground of local experts designing 5G solutions for global use cases using indigenously developed and globally applicable technology.
(The author Gaurav Basra is Chief Strategy Officer at Sterlite Technologies Ltd (STL) and the views expressed in this article are his own)