5G will act as the catalyst for Digital India—a watershed moment in digital transformation
Te have come a long way from the first generation of phones that could only be used to make calls and that too for crudely about 30 minutes. That was the battery strength in those times. Now, we stand at the cusp of driverless cars and fully automated households using communications technologies to the brim. The figures speak for themselves. In 2017, India was one of the fastest growing smartphone markets in the world—it’s expected to have over 180 million smartphones by 2019, which accounts for 13.5% of the global smartphone market, thanks to increased affordability and propensity to spend, and lowering internet tariff rates. India has progressed rapidly, at least as far as communications technology is concerned. The country is joining global technology leaders that are already preparing to roll out 5G technology-based services.
In terms of network, second generation, or 2G, was rolled out in India in late-1990s, almost a decade after the rest of the world deployed it; 3G came in almost 15 years later, but 4G came in five years hence, and now two years down the line, India is preparing the ground for the fifth iteration, or 5G. This is a huge development when seen from the fact that, across sectors, India has been a market where a technology gets deployed eventually. India has been a consumer of technology rather than an innovator. But this time the advantages are far too many to ignore. Innovation is being driven from India now, on several fronts.
Due to its transformational abilities, possible applications and variety of use-cases, 5G has the potential to redefine the way things are done across verticals and industries, including logistics, agriculture, education, entertainment, manufacturing, industrial automation, etc. It will enable new user experiences (like AI) and change the way we have lived and worked. The government is putting in concerted efforts. A high-level forum of experts has been working to put in place suitable policy measures towards achieving the target of commercially commencing the roll out of 5G-based services in India by 2020.
The forum’s primary tasks are early deployment of 5G, and for the country to achieve a globally-competitive product development and manufacturing ecosystem targeting 50% of India’s market and 10% of global market over 5-7 years. It has also kept aside a fund of Rs 500 crore for 5G R&D. These steps will go a long way in ushering in the 5G era in India, both in letter and in spirit.
COAI has formed the 5G India Forum (5GIF) that is expected to serve as a national initiative where all stakeholders, private and public, small and large, can meet and discuss the challenges of making 5G a reality in India, in conjunction with leaders of the rest of the world.
The adoption of 5G will require substantial investments in downstream innovation than previous generations of communications systems. New business ecosystems are emerging with start-ups and smaller ecosystem players, which will eventually benefit from the innovation capabilities offered by networks—providing open interfaces to develop network apps and services.
India, with its leadership in software development and related skilled manpower, is in a good position to exploit this opportunity to be at the forefront of providing compelling services to ride on 5G. While developers are working on potentially game-changing apps and services, the country is in talks with other nations to collaborate and work towards the adoption of this technology. In fact, 5G is expected to act as the “catalyst” for Digital India, and it will also be the watershed moment in India’s digital transformation, enabling technology to breathe life into everything—from IoT and self-driving cars to robotics.
While the commercial roll out of 5G is expected to start in late 2019 or early 2020, its pick up across the country is expected to take half the time taken by preceding technologies. Operators have signed R&D partnerships with leading equipment vendors to test and experiment with the potential of the new technology.
There are certain hurdles—India is woefully short of OFC layouts both in urban and rural areas. Densification of OFC across the country and release of globally harmonised spectrum in all the identified bands at an early date are essential. There are likely to be very high duties on crucial equipment being imported for building networks. While this is being done to encourage domestic production, the volume and quality of equipment needed will take some time to get domestically produced, creating an avoidable impediment to the roll out.
The space to deploy critical infrastructure is another hurdle. While the government has been working towards getting the RoW policy adopted by all states, so far only two have implemented it. RoW enables telecom infrastructure to be set up on government or public land at fixed rates through single-window clearances. Given how essential telecom services are to the country, the relevant infrastructure needs to be given critical status, as is given to roads, transport, water supplies. Digital India depends upon telecom infrastructure.
The draft National Digital Communications Policy 2018 is perfectly aligned to push India into the 5G era. TSPs had already established infrastructural blueprint for services ranging from 3G to 4G, and now they are building the foundation for emerging technologies such as 5G, AI, IoT, M2M, among others. Once deployed, 5G will deliver 3-4 times more average data speeds compared to 4G; it’ll enable operators to reduce the cost of data production to one-tenth of the current cost and will work towards delivering a unique service experience for consumers, at a much lower cost.
During this year’s Union Budget, the FM announced that DoT would partner with IIT Madras to set up a test bed for research of 5G technologies. The technology is poised to open up a plethora of opportunities in terms of business models, better education, healthcare, smart cities, smart manufacturing, smart logistics and, overall, enhanced lifestyles for one and all.
Digital India is built to transform the country into a digitally-empowered society and a knowledge economy. It intends to connect every citizen and provide access to the government and other key information services on demand, thereby enabling digital empowerment of every citizen. It has three key visions areas: digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen, governance and services on demand, and digital empowerment of citizens. This can only be made possible through a strong telecom sector and best-in-class connectivity.
The Writer is Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI)