President of Broadband India Forum, T V Ramachandran

India is already over a year behind other nations in 5G trials: BIF T V Ramachandran

Interaction with the President of Broadband India Forum, T V Ramachandran, who is widely known in the telecom industry as TV, always throws light on the exact picture or status of India’s telecom industry and its players. Through the interaction with VoicenData, TV provides factual information of the spectrums, 4G and 5G in India, where we stand, and how Indian telcos need to pull up to join the race of 5G launch.

Broadband India Forum (BIF) functions as a policy forum and think-tank that works for the development & enhancement of the entire broadband in India. The forum contributes an effective voice to help propel the nation to achieve the country’s ambitious vision of creating a Digital India.

Few excerpts:

Voice&Data: What is the status of 4G in rural India? How has the spectrum been in last mile connectivity? What does the future hold for 4G?

TV: By the end of 2019, 4G is expected to account for more than half of all connections in India as against just 9% of total connections at the end of 2016. According to CMR, India had 35%, of the 4G subscribers coming from rural areas, which means every one out of three 4G subscribers in the country come from a rural territory.

The standalone 4G operator in India has reportedly already reached about 98% of the coverage across the country which means that significant rural coverage with 4G. India is rapidly migrating to mobile broadband, particularly 4G-capable devices.

The availability of 4G VoLTE feature phone at price plans which rural Indians can conveniently afford is one of the main factors which has led to the 4G coverage in rural areas.

The availability of 4G VoLTE feature phone at price plans which rural Indians can conveniently afford is one of the main factors which has led to the 4G coverage in rural areas. Operators are also investing to deploy more fiber, densify their networks and roll out new technologies such as massive MIMO. The burgeoning video traffic in rural areas is undoubtedly holding great prospects for 4G for several years in both rural and urban areas.

As regards to the availability of spectrum in the last mile connectivity, India has one of the lowest allocated spectrums in the world. Mobile subscriber supported per Hz of spectrum is one of the highest in India. For a country with a large population and rapidly growing mobile usage, this is an enormous problem that constrains the country’s ability to offer mobile solutions and next-generation technologies.

In fact, the pressure on the 4G spectrum is being cited as one of the main reasons why operators want to shift to 5G.

Spectrum constraints have adversely affected the quality of services and download speeds. According to a report by Ookla, India’s average mobile download speed is about 10.71 Mbps. This is nearly one-third of other countries. In fact, the pressure on the 4G spectrum is being cited as one of the main reasons why operators want to shift to 5G. 4G constituted 92% of total data traffic consumed across the country; Category B circles witnessed the highest increase in 4G payload. So, while the prospects of 4G services in rural areas is happening and data traffic is surging with the increase in video traffic, spectrum will increasingly be a big crunch.

So, the coming years will be about co-existence and as stated earlier, 5G will be a technology of technologies.

4G, as a technology will continue to witness growth in the short-term as well as it will co-exist with 5G technology in the next 5-10 years. So, the coming years will be about co-existence and as stated earlier, 5G will be a technology of technologies, in which all elements mobile broadband (4G and 5G), fixed-line, Satcom and Public Wi-Fi will play a key role.

Voice&Data: What can we known about the potential of 5G in India?

TV: Strategic shift towards digitization & digitalization is happening today. 5G is being perceived as the foundation for expanding the potential of the networked society. 5G’s ultra-high throughput, ultra-low latency, and massive capacity will significantly transform our lives and improve work efficiency.

GSMA Intelligence forecasts suggest that the first commercial 5G services will launch in India in 2020.

According to a recent study by IHS Markit on the economic impact of 5G, between 2020 and 2035, the impact of 5G technology on global GDP will be roughly equivalent to adding an economy the size of India to the present global economy. GSMA Intelligence forecasts suggest that the first commercial 5G services will launch in India in 2020. 5G connections in India are forecast to reach 88 million by 2025, equivalent to around 7% of the total connections base in the country. We will be able to achieve these or even exceed these forecasts if issues pertaining to high spectrum prices, high levies and duties and right of way are resolved.

5G has the potential to impact a multitude of infrastructure verticals where there is a huge scope of improvement and upgradation such as agriculture, healthcare, manufacturing, energy, automobiles and logistics by helping them develop new use cases and business models. Building a collaborative relationship with verticals will be the key differentiator for 5G.

Colin Willcock, Chairman of the 5G Infrastructure Association, and Head of radio network standardization at Nokia stated, “This will be the difference between 4G and 5G. For 5G to be successful, it needs to integrate with verticals and if we fail with the verticals, we will fail with 5G.” For instance, in the consumer sector, the way 4G brought 10 times increase in the customer usage of the network, 5G is also anticipated to bring 10 times increase in the usage, driven by hyper-connectivity and proliferation of AR/VR enabled services. However, the enterprise sector and fixed wireless access are anticipated to drive many large consumptions.

To play an active role in the emerging use cases and make India a frontrunner in 5G, the government created a 5G High-Level Forum in Sep 2017. The High-Level 5G India 2020 Forum pointed out, there are huge economic benefits to be realized across various verticals that we cannot afford to let float away. Illustratively, a recent study modeling Pune as a ‘smart city’ estimated that it can unlock an incremental value of 30% GDP valued at Rs 80,000 crore over six years. This is for an area of 331 sq km and a population of 3.5 million. This study enabled the city to drive numerous digital service initiatives to capture the resulting growth potential of 15% CAGR (Purushottam Kaushik, L&T). And this is about just one city—imagine this evaluation across the country.

There is a need to look at 5G infrastructure as a complete bouquet of different infrastructure elements and their potential.

5G has the potential to be called the technology of technologies as it will embrace all the elements of digital infrastructure. While mobile broadband will be an important element of 5G, other infrastructure lines such as fixed-line, Public Wi-Fi and Satcom will be as important. Public Wi-Fi will help to achieve coverage and capacity as it is not limited by spectrum and Satcom will help reach broadband services to rural, remote and far flung areas in the most economical way. Thus, there is a need to look at 5G infrastructure as a complete bouquet of different infrastructure elements and their potential.

A case in point is Japanese technology company SoftBank working with OneWeb (in which it has a major stake) to use satellites to support and control self-driving vehicles in Japan. SoftBank is installing more than 3300 base stations throughout Japan which can provide what is described as centimetre-level accuracy. Testing starts in July. Following tests, SoftBank says that it hopes the full system will be in use by the end of November. The use of Satcom in such low latency services highlights its potential for 5G and has all the more meaning for India.

Voice&Data: What is your take on liberalization of Wi-Fi and rural public Wi-Fi hotspots?

TV: Based on a World Bank study, a 10% increase in broadband penetration in a country results in ~1.3 % increase in the GDP growth. A BIF-ICRIER joint study of 2017 has shown that a 10% increase in Mobile Internet Penetration has resulted in a GDP increase of almost 3.3% for India. Broadband penetration is fundamental to the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s Digital India vision.

The Role of Public Wi-Fi is very important in spreading broadband penetration. While the cost of Mobile Broadband has come down dramatically, post arrival of a new entrant in the market, it is still more viable to have Public Wi-Fi from ubiquitous broadband perspective. Consistent download capacity for heavy downloads requires the availability of consistent and Public Wi-Fi will play a very significant role.

India, unfortunately, is lagging behind as compared to other economies in terms of the number of Public Wi-Fi hotspots. 

India, unfortunately, is lagging behind as compared to other economies in terms of the number of Public Wi-Fi hotspots. Based on a global average of 1 Wi-Fi hotspot for every 150 persons, which is being revised to 1 in 20 persons, India should have had 80 lakh hotspots. Though we have 3.5 lakh Public Wi-Fi hotspots thanks to Govt initiatives, we are barely at about 5% of the benchmark requirement. So, we have a long way to go.

Thanks to TRAI recommendations regarding liberalization of the Public Wi-Fi model and the unique WANI standard for inter-operability between hotspots and Govt’s acceptability & approval of the same, the fruits of these are beginning to show which is evident from Govt’s recent announcement confirming a sizeable number of inter-operable hotspots, thereby enabling ‘roaming’ while moving from one public Wi-Fi hotspot to another.

To proliferate Public Wi-Fi hotspots everywhere across the country in a very short span of time, full liberalization of public Wi-Fi is the need of the hour as this would not be possible with a limited number of players but would require veritably a huge army of entrepreneurs to go and set up Public Wi-Fi hotspots everywhere. Hence opening up of Public Wi-Fi sector to an army of Public Data Office Aggregators (PDOA) is a key requirement for meeting the hotspots target as enunciated in the NDCP.

The Gazette Notification by the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) to license-exempt 605 MHz in the 5GHz band in line with developed economies like US, UK, Korea, etc. was a hugely welcome step forward to obviate the bandwidth crunch for creation of Public Wi-Fi hotspots, thereby leading to increase in total unlicensed spectrum available for Public Wi-Fi by almost 6  times.  A report by Analysys Mason on Public Wi-Fi says free and de-licensed spectrum availability has been a major driver of Wi-Fi take-up across the world, leading to global economies of scale and mass production of Wi-Fi equipment which drove down the cost of Wi-Fi (access points, chipsets) devices thereby reinforcing the virtuous cycle. With this GN of October’2018, India joined the global bandwagon in making adequate spectrum available for this very important service.

India’s GDP could increase by over USD 20 billion cumulative between 2017-19 broadly by the impact of Public Wi-Fi and will address 7 out of the 9 Digital India Pillars vision set by the Government of India. This is based on Analysis Mason Report on Public Wi-Fi released in July 2018.

Voice&Data: Could you outline the potential of satellite communications by optimization of policy and regulatory framework?

TV: All the top 10 economies of the world viz. US, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, Brazil use Broadband from Communication Satellites. The US which is one of the most wired broadband countries with almost close to 80% fiber connectivity, has the highest deployment of Satellite based broadband with over 4 million terminals deployed and continues to grow at the rate of almost 90,000 subscribers per month. India with its huge geographic spread, inaccessible terrain, a vast area of rural & remote villages and huge challenges of Right of Way (RoW) and being a predominantly wireless country requires more Satcom services.

Digital India requires broadband connectivity across the length and breadth of the country. Satcom needs to be treated as an integral part of 5G networks to tap the potential of 5G in India. While terrestrial connectivity (Mobile Broadband) is feasible & economically viable to deploy in urban areas, however when it comes to rural and remote areas, the cost of providing terrestrial connectivity shoots up by almost 10-20x, thereby making it economically unviable for terrestrial technologies to reach the last 20% of the population. To top it all, are the huge challenges posed due to RoW (Right of Way). It is in such areas that Broadband through Satellite serves as a ‘messiah’ as it does not have to overcome the challenges associated with Right of Way and the huge costs associated with roll out of terrestrial technologies.

Huge growth is expected in the satcom market globally in the next 5-10 years & number of communication satellites are expected to double. India is also growing its capacity, albeit at a much slower pace.

Huge growth is expected in the satcom market globally in the next 5-10 years & the number of communication satellites are expected to double. India is also growing its capacity, albeit at a much slower pace. Vigorous private competition is needed here also like in telecom where it enabled huge customer benefits, market growth and drastic reduction in price.

We are proud of DOS/ISRO’s success in propelling India as a self-reliant country when it comes to launch of satellites for scientific & technological missions viz. Mars Mission with a shoestring budget, launch multiple satellites (over a 100) through one single launch vehicle, now we need to look at technology independence and self-reliance when it comes to communication satellites and how they can help in providing ubiquitous broadband coverage to every nook & corner of the country.

With a minimum of 6-12 months of intensive 5G live trials required prior to release, we are already over a year behind other nations.

Voice&Data: 5G has to be developed for the industry along with the development of 4G for the general population. What are the challenges and prospects of this becoming a reality in the next 2 years?

TV: As of March 2019, 15 operators around the world have been offering commercial 5G services. In India, not a single large live trial has been initiated, and the guidelines for the release of experimental or trial spectrum are still work in process. With a minimum of 6-12 months of intensive 5G live trials required prior to release, we are already over a year behind other nations. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has laid out a 100-day 5G action plan that includes the commencement of 5G trials and policy surrounding this technology. Deloitte estimates that India needs a massive Rs 5 lakh crore ($70 billion) investment to bring in 5G.

Deloitte estimates that India needs a massive Rs 5 lakh crore ($70 billion) investment to bring in 5G.

It is clear that 5G will have to co-exist with 4G for at least for the first 5-10 years. During this period it is expected that the operators will continue optimally utilize their existing 4G networks and resources to meet the enhanced broadband needs of the general public while in the initial years, the advanced industrial needs and niche requirements will be catered to by 5G, before being adopted by the general population on a mass scale. Only one operator in India currently has a 4G network that can be upgraded to 5G fairly quickly. The rest, having started operations in 1995, run on legacy networks of 2G, 3G and 4G. Much of our infrastructure is an amorphous mix of technologies with much of it analogue, and cannot support the speeds that 5G needs. It is evident that the road to 5G is laden with some obstacles.

Spectrum allocation and pricing play the most significant role. There is an urgent need to review the auction design and the setting of the reserve prices, as pointed out by expert research agency ICRIER. The spectrum issue needs to be immediately resolved, else our foray into 5G will continue to be very challenging.

To realize the potential of 5G, we require a dense, high-quality, bend- and pressure-resistant optical fiber network.

The next major issue to discuss is infrastructure. To realize the potential of 5G, we require a dense, high-quality, bend- and pressure-resistant optical fiber network. This enables much faster and reliable speeds that empower 5G technology. There is also a need to resolve Right of Way (RoW) issues.

The GSMA released recommendations in its report ‘India: Becoming 5G-ready’. It emphasizes the need for a supportive investment and taxation policy and the necessity to move away from legacy regulatory structures and towards a whole new government paradigm.

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