While the government has announced the formation of a high-level panel to evaluate and approve road maps and action plans for rolling out 5G technology in India by 2020, it is time to pause and assess the prerequisites for such a roll-out.
Though a wave of consolidation has reduced the fragmentation of spectrum amongst the mobile operators, non-contiguous assignment of spectrum, especially in the 1800 MHz, has provided some technical barriers for improving spectral efficiencies. Carrier aggregation provided by 5G will greatly enhance the effective use of fragmented spectrum. The 5G networks will work seamlessly on multiple frequency bands catering to variety of requirements including short- and long-haul access, and differing Quality of Service requirements. Network services can be provided over cellular, and Wi-Fi, that can complement each other both for coverage and capacity.
It is in this context that the recently launched Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (WANI) architecture and associated pilot project initiated by Trai for massifying public Wi-Fi in the country makes eminent sense. The coexistence of mobile broadband and Wi-Fi, enabled by 5G technologies and appropriate monetisation models as envisioned by Trai in its recommendation earlier this year, will pave way for ubiquitous broadband access.
Though much attention has been paid on the assignment of access spectrum for mobile services, spectrum for backhaul has been greatly ignored. The user will be able to get the benefit of migrating to 5G only if the backhaul that interconnects the tower system and the internet are of adequate capacity to handle traffic. It is estimated that close to 80% of backhaul connectivity in India is predominantly wireless (using microwave) compared to other countries. Hence, allocation and assignment of more and appropriate spectrum for backhaul is a prerequisite for 5G.
Traditionally, the backhaul spectrum that has differing characteristics compared to access spectrum was assigned using an administrative procedure such as first-come-first-serve. However, due to the Supreme Court verdict in 2012 notifying that all scarce resources including spectrum shall be auctioned, Trai and DoT have not still been able to arrive at a suitable methodology for assigning backhaul spectrum to the telcos and ISPs. The Trai recommendation in 2014 and subsequent DoT request to Trai in 2015 have stalled the process of assigning more spectrum that is vital for 5G deployment.
Without adequate backhaul spectrum and associated bandwidth, the advantages of 5G that provides high-access speeds will be lost. Though Trai has extended recommendation for the release of high frequency V and E bands, the lower frequency bands such as 28 GHz should also be explored for backhaul due to easier equipment manufacturability and deployment.
Our National Frequency Allocation Plan (NFAP) 2011 has also been silent about spectrum for long range as applicable for Internet of Things (IoT) communication. The EU, the US and China have allocated specific unlicensed spectrum in the 800 MHz band for IoT communication; it is time that the Wireless Planning and Coordination Wing of the DoT revises the NFAP to reflect the same.
In addition, 5G offers an opportunity for India to dictate standards and use its market to become a technology leader, much as what China did with TD-LTE technologies. Our standard bodies such as the Telecommunications Standards Development Society, India (TSDSI) can play a significant role in promoting India-specific standards and hence the development of equipment ecosystem.
Over and above infrastructural requirements, the government needs to have a well-defined data protection law in place before the roll-out of 5G. Contrary to the erstwhile 2G/3G networks where mere call detail records are captured, the data possessed by operators in 5G networks will include, for example, vital health records, minute-to-minute information on day-to-day activities of citizens as well as business sensitive information. There is imminent need to expedite the work on the national data protection law. Realising this, Trai has also released a consultation paper on data protection as applicable to the telecom sector, the recommendations of which need to be enacted before 5G comes into vogue.
The increasing power of vertically integrated internet companies such as Google and Facebook is becoming a focus of attention of regulatory experts worldwide. Telecom companies are also attempting to create their own walled gardens around subscriber data. This tendency will intensify in the 5G world. If such issues are overlooked, the market may be dominated by a few players. Such “winner takes all” market can be looked at as an “all-pay” auction, wherein studies in behavioural game theory show that participants have a tendency to over invest in assets including spectrum. It would be desirable to have some resolution in place before the launch of 5G regarding competition issues in the sector.
Finally, we need more autonomy for banks and robust loan approval processes to ensure that the 5G roll-out does not create macroeconomic risks, much as what we are witnessing now, with mounting debt of telcos. The option of telcos using spectrum as collateral towards their bank loans is being debated since 2012. Recently, Trai has also proposed the same to the DoT. It is time that spectrum, which is the biggest asset of telcos, be allowed to be used as collateral to reduce the possibility of non-performing assets of this vital infrastructure sector of the digital economy.