All of us are too familiar with the normal landline and mobile telecommunication networks and cannot function without them in personal, professional, or corporate lives. They are an inseparable part of our modern-day existence. In telecom jargon, these fixed and mobile phone networks are known as public land/mobile networks (PLMN) because they are designed and used for communication by the public.
In contrast, there are also private or non-public mobile networks, which are meant for captive usage by enterprises, for example, for automation and robotics in factories, hospitals, etc.; logistics and transportation; modern agricultural techniques; and advanced research. These are relatively unknown to the public since these are not used by them for communication. In view of the lack of familiarity with such networks, there is needless misunderstanding, fuelled by vested interests, about these private networks in many quarters.
India is known to need large improvements to advance to Industry 4.0 and be globally competitive in manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, etc. All sectors have to be digitalised to achieve the above and leverage our great geopolitical advantage. One of the fastest and most cost-effective ways of doing so would be to permit all enterprises and sectors to set up private 5G networks in their units, campuses, or fields. Enterprises and others need direct spectrum to set up their own captive networks because it is axiomatic that public telecommunication networks, designed to cater to the median or mean public quality requirement, can never meet the specialised and highly demanding requirements of enterprises. It is also a given that no one knows these requirements better than the enterprise itself—be it industry or agriculture or healthcare or transportation. It follows therefore, that the spectrum must be directly allotted to the entity.
It is also most reasonable to permit the entity/enterprise the freedom to negotiate and choose the partner who will set up the captive non-public network. It may be noted that even telecom operators have their public networks set up by their infrastructure partners like Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, Huawei, etc., who have the best core competence in design, development, installation, operation, and maintenance of networks. Hence, enterprises can go directly to these specialists without going through a middle man and diluting both the quality and value of the transaction.
TRAI, after detailed consultations, recommended 5G spectrum allotment to enterprises by one of four methods—three of them involving the TSPs and only one involving direct spectrum to enterprises. Even in the latter method, the telcos are not ruled out—if they have a competitive offer, they’d win the contract. In effect, this is a 4:1 advantage for telcos against enterprises! Apart from this advantage to incumbents, the latter also enjoy the unique and precious rights of interconnection as well as numbering resources, enabling them to cater to the general public and also make large retail and institutional market revenues, while enterprises do not make any such revenues. Thus, the playing field is totally tilted in favour of the telcos.
With such a high priority requirement of spectrum to be assigned directly to enterprises, one is bewildered by the need of conducting a demand study before actualising the matter. Demand estimations are, of course, known for large retail or institutional markets but such estimations are totally unknown and impractical for unique captive usage and entities. Captive usage would clearly be a function of its unique combination of technology, processes, people, skills and environment, and could vary much even between entities in the same category. For example, captive usage of a Maruti Udyog could widely differ from that of a Toyota or Honda factory.
Moreover, why should there be need for a demand study for a globally prevalent application? There are over 794 private networks in the world operating in 68 countries. India, with its 1.4 billion population, hundreds of big enterprises, large requirement in agriculture and its overall demographics, should surely have at least 150-200 private networks on an equitable basis. Isn’t this justification enough? Aren’t 5G private networks one of the easiest-to-implement use cases that would benefit all sectors of industry?
The overarching demand justification has now come from the Adani Group which has clearly stated its interest only in private networks for captive usage in its large empire of businesses. Its action indicates that the need is urgent and that it is not prepared to wait indefinitely for some unjustified and vague demand estimation. Shouldn’t the fundamental right of choice in optimising its business be provided to the enterprise? The Union cabinet has decided on four methods by which spectrum is to be made available for setting up private networks. No one has the right to change, limit or delay these choices. We need to brush aside the naysayers with vested interests and accelerate the direly-needed digitalisation of India.
The author is Honorary fellow, IET (London), and president, Broadband India Forum. Views are personal.