NEW DELHI: The muddle in India’s telecom sector is likely to deepen with the Department of Telecom (DoT) expected to announce the schedule for 5G trials soon. Industry insiders warn that the government wants the trials to stretch well into the next year, which is viewed by many as a waste of resources and will involve considerable wear and tear of equipment.
“The 5G trial is only to determine speed and latency,” said a high ranking industry executive, “which can be determined in a matter of weeks or at most a month. Beyond that it serves no useful purpose”.
But the government has its reasons: the Coronavirus is an obvious but more recent one. Actually stretching the trial date buys the government time to try and put its own house in order. For instance, the government has deferred the auction, for the first time, of 3.6 GHz spectrum to sometime next year. It suggests the government is unclear about whether 3.6 GHz will do for 5G or should it also consider the 26 GHz, considered by the telcos as critical for ultra high 5G speeds. It also has more airwaves, 3250 units (as compared to 175 units for 3.6 GHz), and if networks want to expand in the future, they can tap into the 28 GHz, which is an adjacent spectrum. But the government is yet to evolve a policy here.
An added complication is DoT had allowed the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) request to use the 26 GHz band for satellite communication purposes. DoT later proposed lowering the power per 5G base station so as to incorporate them into 26 GHz. But the industry says that would make it difficult to transmit voice communication.
Last year the World Radiocommunication Conference had identified the bands suitable for 5G services which included frequencies between 24.25 and 27.5 GHz. So by adopting 26 to 28 GHz India will be following a world practice ensuring communication stability across geographies and seamless global roaming. The International Telecom Union says this will also ensure protection for earth exploration satellite services. The DoT has to figure a way out.
Add to that the sticky issue of high reserve price of spectrum, which is Rs 490 crore (around $66 mn) per megahertz in India. This is far more than what other countries charge (South Korea $18 mn, UK $10 mn, Australia $5 mn). Some of the telecom majors are heavily burdened with debt but the government cannot step in to help them as that would violate Supreme Court rulings.
So these telcos have indicated they will not take part in the auction of spectrum, as and when it happens. Even a cash flush telco like Jio may boycott the bid since it may see more advantage investing in technology rather than in spectrum, which would entail a debt burden. So the auction could fail, which has happened many times in the past, including as recently as in 2016 when the auction of 700 MHz spectrum saw no bids. That may not be a negative development since it may result in an auction price that the telcos would find affordable.
Industry insiders say the government could boost the 5G pace by giving certain spectrum, through the telecom operators, to industries and enterprises purely for their digital transformation. This is especially relevant for any investor keen to set up a new manufacturing facility in India. Government can add restrictions to ensure that these are used only for enabling automation, machine to machine communication, industrial IoT, industry 4.0, AI in manufacturing, etc.
Indian IT firms will also significantly benefit from this. Post-Covid, supply chains are getting disrupted, manufacturing will move closer to the western consumer, which means new manufacturing facilities will come up in the U.S. and in Europe. These will all be digital and based on industry 4.0. They will need skilled manpower, which Indian IT can offer. But for that to happen, India needs to transform itself beginning with policy and then moving on to platforms. The time is now.
Last word: Given the delays in 5G, tech majors Qualcomm and Intel are pushing WiFi-6, which is basically an improvement on the current WiFi with better speeds. But it operates in the unlicensed 25 megahertz spectrum. This means it is open to infiltration and hacking and therefore unsuitable for use by governments or large corporations. It is ideal, however, for homes, as mobile hot spots. Food for thought.