There is no doubt that 5G will significantly contribute in transforming everyday lives of Indians by resolving real issues within e-healthcare, e-education, infrastructure and e-governance. High-speed broadband serves as the pillar of this digital transformation, and remains the top priority for telecom service providers, the government and the citizens alike.
What are benefits for 5G in India?
5G’s promise of ultra-low latency of 1 millisecond and 10-plus Gbps speeds will allow access to high-bandwidth multimedia and data services for various industry applications. By the time of its global launch in 2020, 5G will practically converge our physical, virtual and social worlds through the Internet of Things and Big Data Analytics.
What are some of the challenges for bringing 5G to India?
While the global roll-out of 5G commercial services is expected by 2020, India is currently expected to roll-out 5G by 2022. There is ongoing excitement in the regulatory-industry-academia ecosystem about 5G, and they are converging to make it a reality; yet there are known challenges to a speedy roll-out.
Investment in fiberisation and infrastructure: The current networks in India are in the evolution stage from 3G to 4G, and the next transition to 5G presents challenges due to diversities in network densification, disparate data offload strategies and uncertainties around backhaul technology. With 5G requiring highest capacity backhaul to deliver its intended peak data rates, fibre has become a critical backhaul and transport technology. Most leading telecom operators are committed to and investing in fibre, and the government is leading the way through BharatNet. Still, there needs to be an urgency around fiberisation—5G is intended to support mission-critical applications such as financial transactions and healthcare, and latency and high speed will be achieved by fiberisation.
Regulatory hurdles: On the government side, issues such as Right of Way (RoW) across different states must be addressed on priority. Currently, RoW charges vary from a few lakh rupees to `1.5 crore per km across different states. With states having different RoW policies, telcos are losing out significant amount of their infrastructure investments to municipal bodies across states. As the industry evolves to the next level of growth through 5G, operators are likely to face the brunt of RoW even more. While the government recently tried to resolve this issue through new RoW rules by standardising processes and fixing applicable charges, its implementation has not been realised on ground. We look forward to issues such as these being addressed soon to bring ease of doing business in the sector.
Can India leapfrog to 5G?
Yes, while there are known challenges, India has the opportunity to leapfrog and be ready for 5G sooner than expected. Recent developments suggest that steps are being taken to address these challenges. Already, the industry and the government are committed, and the coming together of the ecosystem will enable us to be ready.
The Centre has initiated measures to introduce 5G technology in India via the National Telecom Policy (NTP), much anticipated in March 2018.
Forum to develop 5G roadmap: The government is taking critical steps to address timely 5G infrastructure development. Recently, the Department of Telecommunications set up a high-level forum to develop the roadmap for operationalising 5G services in India by 2020. This is promising as the forum will work on a roadmap execution plan, and not at a high-level strategy. Additionally, `500 crore has been earmarked for research and development of 5G technologies.
NTP: Telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan has committed to fiberisation being an integral part of the new NTP. Moreover, her vision is to extend fiberisation from its current focus on rural broadband (via BharatNet) to include urban areas as well. This is extremely positive news for 5G adoption, as the commitment to and investment in fibre infrastructure is the key to its roll-out.
The government is planning to give a boost to telecom manufacturing as part of the new NTP. Aiming to achieve 100% tele-density, high-speed internet highways and delivery of citizen-centric services electronically, the NTP is likely to make the telecom sector future-proof and also bring in the much-needed fundamental changes in the industry. We are expecting that the NTP will be forward-looking, encourage investments in fibre backhaul, bring in standardisation, ease RoW issues and also help envision a development roadmap for digital highways in the country.
Government support to private telcos: The government also recently announced a subsidy of `3,600 crore to private telecom players such as Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Reliance Jio to set up Wi-Fi in rural areas as part of the second phase of the BharatNet project covering 100 million people. Fibre remains the core of this transition for the delivery of citizen-centric services.
100% fiberisation: The current, dynamic market recently witnessed one of the most significant consolidation efforts in the Indian telecom history. At the same time, it also welcomed new, disruptive market forces, triggering revolutionary changes in service delivery and competition. The impact is clearly visible—major telecom operators including Reliance Jio, Vodafone and Airtel have stepped up their investments, allocating huge funds to improve network quality and customer service. The market has realised that optical fibre-enabled access services are the only future-proof technologies as they accommodate the demands arising from evolving market conditions.
Most private telcos are already playing their part in fiberisation, with Reliance Jio leading the way. Now, Airtel and Vodafone India have also decided to almost double their fibre deployment for 4G/5G. Yet the last-mile fibre coverage is still only about 25-30%. These efforts, coupled with BharatNet, will take this up to 60-70%.
During transition from 3G to 4G, fibre played a key role—either in backbone network, mobile backhaul or access technologies such as FTTx. Fibre formed the core of the network from the 2G era, connecting major cities, to 3G, where it connected smaller towns and sub-urban areas, to 4G for tower backhaul. In fact, in this 2G to 3G transition, tower fiberisation was close to 20-30%. With 4G, tower fiberisation had to increase to 70-80%. For 5G, tower fiberisation will need to be 100%, connecting small cells, buildings and homes.
Infrastructure development: Network transformation to 5G requires deep fiberisation in the access network with high fibre counts. Each 5G front haul will require 1 fibre pair with latency of 1 millisecond. In the preparatory mode, investments in fibre infrastructure are only about 10% of overall deployment costs. Some cost advantages could also be achieved with deployment of enough capacities for future expansion and cables with higher fibre counts to reduce installation costs per fibre.
Additionally, average fibre count can be increased to reduce need for optical splitting as well. With the content moving closer to the users for better quality of service, IP Layer 3 management can be moved to edge of the network providing proximity to data centres.
Data centre expansion: While Indian telecom players are getting ready for 5G, the environment becomes even more conducive as global players such as Alibaba and Amazon set up data centres in India for cloud services. The Indian data centre market is expected to reach $7 billion by 2020 (from $2.2 billion in 2016), making India the second-largest data centre market in APAC. As this market rapidly expands, fibre will be critical to drive high-speed and low-latency requirements, both within the data centres and connectivity between data centres.
So, overall, are the signs for 5G positive?
The Indian telecom industry is ready for the next wave of communication revolution around digital, and is preparing to welcome the 2020 decade with 5G services. What lies at the heart of the country leapfrogging to be 5G-ready are fiberisation and infrastructure development, regulatory support from the government for ROW, and industry-government collaboration. Backed by IPRs, standards developments and proof of concepts through research projects, PPP projects and strong regulatory framework, India can achieve a leadership position in the adoption of 5G. All signs augur well, and we look forward to enabling one of the world’s largest digital transformation.