Centre for Internet & Society

What the government can do for 5G and Digital India with a Systems Approach.

The article by Shyam Ponappa was published in Business Standard on June 6 and in Organizing India Blogspot on the same day.

Ah, 5G! The very thought seems to excite so many. What is it? It is a mix of telecom technologies1 delivering much higher data speeds on more extensive connectivity, using much lower power, with extended battery life, and emitting less radiation, for ways to connect and operate most of the conveniences people use regularly. From smartphones and computers for communications, study, work, research, entertainment, to other devices and machines, such as for managing utilities (electricity and water) at home and the workplace, refrigerators and cooking devices, industrial equipment, transport, and more, so that daily activities are eased considerably. The catch is that 5G is at an early stage in a long process — perhaps a couple of years to manifest in large trials in India, and several more years to be widely available, needing huge investment ($100 billion in India).

Yet, there are compelling reasons for developing India’s capabilities. There is the sheer necessity for India to partially meet its requirements, instead of relying entirely on imports. The big draw is the size of the Indian market and prospective demand, the global market, and the possibility of innovation at this early stage. Domestic capabilities are a prerequisite to afford deployment at a level that would otherwise exceed petroleum imports, with unsustainable effects on our balance of payments. Without domestic capacity, energy imports would limit electronics imports. (This highlights India’s need for solar power development, a separate and equally high priority.)

However, the sobering financial condition of India’s communications industry gives pause. Financial capacity — revenue generation and access to capital, both equity and debt at favourable terms — is required to develop capabilities. After the telecom price wars, even Reliance Jio is reportedly cutting staff. Airtel, meanwhile, having invested heavily in 4G infrastructure, has stated its unwillingness to bid for 5G pectrum unless prices are lower.

The government set up a committee for 5G in September 2017 with a steering group chaired by emeritus professor at Stanford Arogyaswami Paulraj, a pioneer in wireless communications. This committee recommended network deployment as the immediate priority, i.e., rolling out early, efficient and pervasive 5G networks. Technology design and manufacturing capacity were recommended for later phases.

Network deployment needs policy support driven by a Systems Approach, especially for a debt-encumbered sector faced with declining revenues per user, and unused, inaccessible spectrum, even as other countries enhance their lead. This is ironic, because India has real strengths in this sector and a large market, with the potential to catapult productivity and prospects. Yet, government policies have not succeeded in coordinating our reservoir of human resources and potential.

India lags in 5G despite the government’s stated interest in establishing a lead. Spectrum allocation and large trials were scheduled towards the end of 2019, and auctions in 2020. However, government statements this week target 5G trials by September, and auctions by the end of 2019. As spectrum band choices and allocations for trials have yet to be made, this appears overambitious without radical improvement in resolving many such issues.

Also, India’s reserve price for spectrum is seven times Korea’s. As sectoral cash flows are weak, there may be takers only at very low prices unless funding is from external sources as for Reliance. A monopolistic outcome would be undesirable in the public interest. Therefore, shared access with Wireless Resource Virtualisation and Network Function Virtualisation may be a much better solution for network deployment and market development.

Inexplicably, government and the public still view communications as a “government cash-cow” instead of as critical infrastructure, while complaining bitterly about poor delivery from low investment. It is obvious that exorbitant government charges (29-32 per cent of revenues plus corporate tax) crowd out investment. The government can change this, or give up on establishing a lead in communications and 5G. Worse, India will continue to lose out on leveraging communications for development.

Initiate a breakthrough - Apply Systems Thinking

The government can catalyse a breakthrough by doing the following:a) Reduce borrowing costs and taxes for communications as infrastructure. This aim of the National Telecom Policy 2012 (NTP-2012) has been ignored.b) Provide adequate spectrum aligned with global allocations. Given India’s low fibre penetration and need for digital technology, allow shared access to all spectrum and infrastructure, with charges for usage based on revenue sharing.c) Clear administrative impasses through coordination and due process without delay. For example, allocate spectrum immediately for 12 months for trials.Many countries have completed 5G spectrum assignments and are already deploying 5G. These include Korea, Switzerland, Finland, UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Germany, Russia, Italy, and Japan.2There are nearly 300 5G deployments, as shown on an interactive map on Ookla’s site (Chart 1).
Chart 1: 5G Map – June 4, 2019

Source: https://www.speedtest.net/ookla-5g-map
In this context, Huawei’s role in India is contentious. One issue is of non-discriminatory trading terms, or fairness in competition.  If an entity such as Huawei achieves global dominance through government support, it competes on terms that cannot be matched because of cost of funds and scale advantages. Such entities can establish dominance in any country against competitors who do not enjoy similar support. Second, while Huawei may be doing nothing different from Nokia or Ericsson, the fact that it is supported by a neighbour with apparently hegemonic behaviour, China, suggests that dependence or entanglement are inadvisable.

To succeed with Digital India and 5G, government can begin by classifying communications as infrastructure, and adopting the approach taken for 5 GHz Wi-Fi.  Take pointers from the US FCC, ETSI, and so on; use spectrum and network sharing to leverage equipment and spectrum fully; support local technology champions such as a fabless chip design unit and a network equipment manufacturer in Bangalore, and a wireless equipment manufacturer in Delhi; and focus only on delivery with sustainable revenue generation.

Shyam dot Ponappa at gmail dot com

1: 5G technologies include Multi-User – MIMO (MU-MIMO) to improve reception, small cells for better performance and reduced radiation, WiGig and other high-speed wireless technologies, Software Defined Networks with Network Function Virtualisation, Wireless Resource Virtualisation, and a fibre backbone.

2: Page 8: https://img.lightreading.com/5g/downloads/ webinar-breaking-the-wireless-barriers-to-mobilize-5g-

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