India’s tryst with 5G depends on its digital infrastructure

India’s communication technology story is set to turn a new leaf. The country that welcomed the first public internet only 26 years ago is just days away from adopting the fifth-generation technology. 5G is set to bring an inordinate number of socio-economic benefits to the country. If GSMA is to be believed, 5G will contribute USD 450 billion in India’s economy by 2040. Moreover, the technology also promises to bridge the gap between rural and urban.

Get smarter, stronger digital infrastructure

5G will give birth to new and innovative use cases such as real-time augmented reality services, factory automation, autonomous vehicles, smart grid and metering, internet of energy and many more.

These use cases will require networks that are a combination of connectivity, cloud  compute. These networks are disaggregated for Radio Access Networks (RAN) and leverage open software and hardware components from a multi-vendor ecosystem.

The Open RAN (O-RAN) solutions bring flexibility for telecom operators and ISPs, and reduce costs by 25-30%. Going forward, O-RAN is estimated to account for USD 32.3 billion worth of all radio access networks spending (58% of the total) and be deployed at 65% of all sites by 2026.

The market for O-RAN hardware and software will account for ~10% of the total RAN market and exceed USD 5 billion in cumulative revenue during the next five years. India will have to follow and invest in such networks as the new use cases will require performance across all network parameters such as latency, reliability, and scale.

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We can already see Airtel, Vodafone and Jio shifting to- wards O-RAN to create nimble, open, and disaggregated architectures. There is, however, a need to press the pedal to make our digital networks ready for 5G. Aggressive in- vestments in stronger, smarter digital infrastructure can unlock exponential growth and reap the long-term ben- efits of 5G.

India has what it takes to build a strong network

The country has all the ingredients to build a digital infrastructure that can unleash the full potential of 5G and be a 5G enabler. We are the second largest online market in the world, but also are home to 700 million people that are still to be connected through the internet. The country is adept at making digital solutions for common citizens at a low cost.

An example of it would be Bharatnet that has started to generate impact by connecting thousands of people in rural India. We also do not carry any weight of legacy systems and can leapfrog directly to the latest edge networks that can meet evolving demands of 5G consumers on the go. To add to that, India is blessed to have a massive, diverse talent pool in the network software that makes the coun- try well equipped with the skills and knowledge to drive businesses across the globe.

Support from the government can be a big help

India is in a unique position where it has everything going in its favour to lead the 5G revolution from the front. The country, however, needs to scale up its investment on upgrading the digital infrastructure. It is estimated that India will need USD 35 billion of upfront investment to ensure faster digital growth, an amount private players cannot invest alone.

The government needs to step in and collaborate with private players to ensure the time-bound creation of digital infrastructure. Apart from expediting digital infrastructure development, a solid investment by the government will also pave the way for inclusive socio-economic growth, something that private players focussing largely on high-paying geographies have not been able to achieve.

To achieve this kind of investment, the government can dip into various sources, including development loans from World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It can also work towards a pooled funding through pension funds or from other budgetary allocations for education, healthcare, banking and other industries.

The returns from digital infrastructure will not only pay for themselves in the long run but also trigger a domino ef- fect of economic and financial benefits for the masses.

Choosing the right approach will make things easy

To realize the vision of making India a 5G powerhouse, we need a full-scale approach and deployment model that affects society as well as the economic ROI of the investment. I recommend a “wholesale entity” approach that draws inspiration in terms of its structure and key features from the UK infrastructure model of Openreach.

While the model would include several stakeholders including the central and state government and several private players, the ownership would always remain with the government to make sure that the vision is intact. Revenue in this model could be generated by leasing out fibre and utility applications.

We will also be able to dive one step deeper into the detailed architecture, which will ensure that fibre is leasable to private players to earn revenue and the last mile service delivery becomes very clear. It will also ensure that services become available to every villager at the same level as in a big city.

The time is opportune to set the tone for 5G

With the accelerated adoption of digital in the new normal and given the potential that India has, a solid digital infrastructure can propel India to a position of a 5G enabler. An increase in investment by the government will also give a platform for promising Indian companies and startups to flourish in the global scenario. To motivate them further, certain measures like supportive taxation policies, preferential rates for high-tech companies and tax deductions on R&D expenses can also be implemented.

Despite jumping the 5G bandwagon a little late, India has realized the importance of the technology and made crucial investments in its developments.

However, to reach the stars, we need to keep investing in and trusting 5G.

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