By – Mr Verghese and Mr Warrier, Partners at JSA, Advocates & Solicitors
India’s 5G journey has witnessed it all – from conspiracy theories that COVID-19 is a cover-up for the deployment of 5G to a bizarre instance of High Court proceedings being interrupted by an enthusiastic Bollywood fan. While more than 30% of the world’s nations have already implemented 5G commercially (South Korea being the first nation to do so), India is still grappling with issues at every level — be it in relation to market readiness, financial viability, or regulatory structure. Serious concerns are also being raised on the adverse impact that 5G technology has on health and the environment. India is currently at a critical stage where telcos are conducting trials for 5G implementation. Whereas this might suggest that deployment of the technology is round the corner, the fundamental question is whether India is 5G ready or not.
Where Is India vis-a-vis 5G?
5G trials in India are already underway, using foreign and indigenous technologies. Though this phase was expected to conclude by November 2021, telcos have been granted additional time till May 2022, particularly to conduct trials in rural India. The expectation is that various use cases across industries and sectors will be tested in local conditions to assess feasibility. Also, an increased focus on rural connectivity appears to be a given as the majority customer base would probably be in the rural areas. Further, the outreach of network coverage indicates a huge potential.
Spectrum allocation, which is a major hurdle yet to be crossed, is clouded in considerable uncertainty, as is the issue of pricing. The auction is expected to take place sometime in 2022, but if telcos continue to be in the trial phase, then this timeline may get further extended.
Telecom operators are designing their plan of action to launch 5G in terms of developing scalable infrastructure, boosting network capability for higher consumption, focusing on increased efficiency and quality of service, etc. Studies show that a significant percentage of the Indian subscriber base is expected to move to 5G within a few years of deployment, suggesting readiness on the consumers’ part to spend money for 5G services when made available. However, the pricing of these services may eventually be the deciding factor.
It goes without saying that the pandemic has adversely affected every aspect of our lives, including the functioning of the government machinery. Given the present situation, government bodies and regulators may take more time, further delaying any policy and legislative decisions and implementation.
Are We Ready?
Amidst all these developments, it is relevant to assess whether a satisfactory 5G ecosystem has been/is being developed in India for the deployment of 5G technology in an effective and efficient manner. It is important for the industry to address matters such as overcoming physical barriers for wider reach, fibre, and financial viability both for service providers and customers before taking the plunge. It is also likely that several issues relating to network security may arise once 5G is rolled out, given the technology’s superior features.
The poor financial health of Indian telcos is another key concern that will certainly impact their 5G strategy. Also, a pan-India roll-out of infrastructure would require significant capital investment from the telcos.
Spectrum availability and pricing are key aspects that will require focus and effort. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is yet to provide its recommendations on the available spectrum as ISRO and the defence are yet to vacate several bands. Further, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has sought TRAI’s recommendations on spectrum base price, given that the current base price recommended for 5G spectrum airwaves is considerably high.
Partnering with trusted telecom Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) as required by recent Indian regulations would pose a challenge, as most telcos currently rely on foreign counterparts who may be restricted under the new mandate and because local hardware manufacturing will need to move forward at an impressive pace to match India’s 5G targets.
From a regulatory standpoint, India does not currently have a robust telecom framework to address any legal issues that may arise because of the 5G implementation. Procedural complexity and delays that the sector generally faces, as also the lack of a comprehensive policy, are among the drawbacks requiring attention.
How Does the Industry Get Ready for 5G?
What should we look for in the next few years, and how can the industry prepare better to adapt to the new technology? Some of the key aspects would be the following:
- Building an Ecosystem – Industry players have to come together to build an ecosystem conducive to long-term functioning in a manner beneficial to both telcos and consumers. Regulators, telecom service providers, infrastructure providers, OEMs, and all concerned stakeholders will need to collaborate and employ a shared responsibility model.
- Fibre Network – Only 30-40% of India has fibre connectivity today. Given that 5G technology will require higher network reach, fibre footprint will have to be substantially increased in order to efficiently deploy this technology.
- Network Security – Service providers will need to put in place ample security measures and protections to address the risk of this advanced technology. Again, this calls for a combined effort with cyber security companies for building and deploying suitable monitoring systems and security protocols.
- IoT – The future hinges on the Internet of Things (IoT). With improved data transfer speed and reduced latency, the expectation is that 5G would be a game-changer in this space. However, IoT is a relatively new space in India, especially in respect of consumers’ awareness of it. It is important to educate and make the consumer aware of IoT-related cyber security.
- Regulatory – Last but not least, it is critical for the regulator to put in place a robust regulatory regime while keeping in view the scale and functional requirements of the future networks.
Several sectors, particularly the manufacturing sector, financial services, and electronics industry, would benefit hugely from the deployment of 5G. Also, with the entire world moving at a fast pace towards such innovative and sophisticated technologies, India should not be left behind. Therefore, it is imperative for the market to become mature enough to absorb these new changes and implement them and to be ready to address any challenges that may arise.