Sixty-seven countries have active 5G networks, according to an S&P Global Market Intelligence report. And this group is rapidly expanding. India, however, is likely to take a while to get there. Though the department of telecom took the crucial step of allocating trial 5G spectrum to telecom companies in May, it is said that spectrum auction and commercial rollout of 5G services might happen only next year.
DoT has allowed trials in rural and urban areas of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Pune and Hyderabad, and Gujarat. Telecom companies can use their existing frequency and have also been allotted additional spectrum for this. Reliance Jio, India’s largest telecom services provider, has started trials in Mumbai; Airtel, the second-largest player, is at it in Gurugram and Mumbai. Vi, the third-largest, has started 5G trials in Pune and Gandhinagar with its network partners, Finland-based Nokia and Ericsson of Sweden.
Historically, telecom equipment and architecture were the domain of a handful of multinational companies. India’s 5G network, however, is getting a local touch, thanks to the emergence of platforms like the Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) Alliance and the partnerships that Indian telecom companies have inked with local and global partners.
Jio, for instance, says it has indigenously developed the next-generation 5G stack, which will make the technology affordable and accessible. A protocol stack refers to a group of protocols that are interoperable. Jio has collaborated with global technology firms to develop an open and interoperable interface-compliant architecture-based 5G solution.
“Together with our partners, we have tested the Jio 5G solutions in India and we successfully demonstrated speeds well in excess of 1 Gbps. Our made-in-India solution is comprehensive, complete and globally competitive,” said Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, at its annual general meeting a month ago. Jio has installed 5G networks in its data centres across India and its trial sites in Navi Mumbai.
Last year, Qualcomm Ventures, the investment arm of American chipmaker Qualcomm Inc, invested Rs730 crore in Jio Platforms. Qualcomm Technologies and Jio, along with Jio’s subsidiary Radisys Corporation, have been developing open and interoperable interface-compliant architecture-based 5G solutions with a virtualised RAN. RAN is essentially a type of network infrastructure (radio base station and antennas, in simple terms) used for mobile networks.
“Radisys is a company that works on virtual RAN or open RAN. We work with them very closely. We have worked in the US along with them and demonstrated quite a few examples of what 5G can deliver,” said Rajen Vagadia, VP and president, Qualcomm India and SAARC.
And, it is not just Jio; Airtel and the Tatas, too, have joined hands in developing 5G network solutions. Tata has developed O-RAN-based radio and NSA/SA core, and has integrated a totally indigenous telecom stack, leveraging the capabilities of its group companies and partners. NSA, or non-standalone architecture, is essentially 5G built over an existing 4G network, while SA or standalone architecture, is independent 5G with no connection with any existing network. Separately, Tata Consultancy Services, a software giant, will bring its expertise in systems integration, with the network and equipment increasingly embedded into the software.
Tata is now looking to strengthen the hardware expertise through the acquisition of a controlling stake in Tejas Networks, a developer and seller of networking products. Tejas’s products range from broadband access to optical transmission. This should help in making networking gear. “Tejas Network was started with a vision of creating a top tier global telecom equipment company from India. The association with Tata Group will accelerate the realisation of this vision and enable us to address the large market opportunity available to us to build a financially strong global company,” said Sanjay Nayak, CEO of Tejas Networks.
“Local partnerships can catalyse the 5G infra rollout by speeding up the process of equipment manufacturing and setup,” said Lt Gen S.P. Kochhar, director general, Cellular Operators Association of India.
Airtel will start the pilot in January 2022. It is also working with Qualcomm and will utilise Qualcomm’s 5G RAN platforms to roll out virtualised and open RAN-based 5G networks.
The O-RAN Alliance was founded in February 2018 by some of the biggest telecom firms in the world—AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, China Mobile, NTT Docomo and Orange—to shape the RAN industry towards more open, virtualised and fully interoperable mobile networks. It is now a worldwide community that includes mobile network operators, vendors, and research and academic institutions. Airtel is a board member of the O-RAN Alliance and TCS is a member.
“The design of 5G is modular and this implies that the carriers can buy various components from different vendors and make the system work,” said Radhakrishna Ganti, associate professor, department of electrical engineering at IIT Madras. “This has been accelerated with the O-RAN consortium. With this modular architecture, it is now easy for Indian companies to provide 5G technology and products to the carriers.”
The flexible and scalable architecture of O-RAN will create new opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses. “O-RAN allows you to use standard, ‘template-ised’, readily available off-the-shelf hardware and then put software on top of it and use that as a part of the network. Both Airtel and Jio are working actively on O-RAN,” said Vagadia.
One big advantage that O-RAN architecture brings is the scalability of the network. So, instead of investing heavily in infrastructure like network towers and masts, telecom operators can use O-RAN small cells fitted on the existing infrastructure like light poles, and then scale it up as and when required.
“Scalability of 5G networks comes with O-RAN. That is a massive value for a competitive country like India, where the ARPUs (average revenue per user) are a tenth of that of a developed economy. We are under financial stress and need to find optimal solutions. Here O-RAN comes as a massive advantage,” said Vagadia.
Nokia is producing 5G equipment at its factory in Chennai. It was the first to make the 5G New Radio (the global standard for a unified 5G) in the country. It has also started manufacturing massive Multiple Input Multiple Output (mMIMO) solutions. MIMO is a radio communications technology used to multiply radio link capacity using multiple transmission and receiving antennas. This helps in improving data quality and radio transmission capacity.
Apart from indigenous technology and architecture, India’s 5G networks will also have a local flavour. The department of telecom has encouraged companies to use the 5Gi standard, in addition to 5G, during the trials. Developed by IIT Madras, the Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology (CEWiT) and IIT Hyderabad, 5Gi is one of the three 5G technologies that were approved by the International Telecommunications Union as a 5G standard.
But, why is India pushing for its own 5G standards over the globally accepted 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standard? “The 5Gi standard is built as an enhancement over the 3GPP standard and has the required capability for increased cell size coverage for rural areas,” said Ganti. “The 5Gi standard would provide better rural connectivity with fewer base stations, thus bridging the critical urban-rural connectivity divide in India.”
Some telecom companies are reportedly unhappy with this requirement to use the 5Gi standards. Gopal Vittal, CEO of Bharti Airtel South Asia, had earlier said it would lock India out of the global ecosystem and slow the pace of innovation.
The Telecommunications Standards Development Society of India (TSDSI), however, disagrees. “5Gi is a superset of 3GPP technology. Both technologies will interwork permitting roaming nationally as well as internationally. 5Gi handsets will work with 5G base towers and 5Gi base towers will work with 5G handsets,” a spokesperson for the TSDSI told THE WEEK.
5Gi can play a big role in giving rural India access to a faster telecom network. “The greatest advantage of this technology is that it increases coverage to nearly 6km. This is sufficient to cover 95 per cent of India’s villages since they lie within 6km of BharatNet PoPs (points of presence). This also reduces the number of base stations required to provide rural coverage and thus the cost of total deployment will come down significantly,” said the TSDSI spokesperson.
All eyes are now on the government, which is yet to decide on a date for the auction of the 5G spectrum. Some reports have suggested that it was likely to be delayed to 2022.
A sensitive issue is going to be the price. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had earlier recommended a reserve price of Rs492 crore per megahertz of spectrum in the 3,300Mhz-3,600Mhz band. Telecom companies say the high pricing will make the commercial launch of 5G unviable for them. “India is a price-sensitive market,” said Kochhar. “Effective spectrum pricing is critical for a healthy sale of spectrums. Otherwise, high reserve prices can lead to spectrums remaining unsold, thereby making for unviable and unsustainable business cases.”