India will go 5G by 2020, but you won’t feel the difference


We’re doing it. We’re going 5G, the ultimate promise of the Internet is to be delivered by 2020. Or at least that’s what the Indian government would have you believe. As countries in the west stride towards a 5G future, the Indian government says it doesn’t want to be left behind. But what is this claim based on? Why are we so confident that we’ll deploy 5G by 2020?

More importantly, Is it even possible?

The fact is that despite failing to keep up on 2G, 3G and 4G deployment, India might actually be well placed to not just catch up but race ahead of the world this time. The rollout of 5G globally has been ahead of its estimated deployment time in a way, agrees Amit Marwah, Head, Customer Marketing and Communication at Nokia. It isn’t any different here.

He further adds that most hurdles in moving to 5G in India are regulatory, meaning a properly motivated government can achieve the set milestones.

At its current state, mobile connections in Tier I cities in India are already at what is called “4.5G,” which you see as LTE on your phone. “From a purely technical perspective, we have the capability to offer 5G network solutions to Indian carriers by mid-2019, but the government and industry will first need to decide on a mutually convenient timeline to auction 5G airwaves,” said Nitin Bansal, Head of Network Solutions, MOAI, at Ericsson. Nokia and Ericsson are two of the biggest equipment, software and infrastructure suppliers for the telecom industry.

Technologically Ready…

Telcos worldwide have been amping up their 5G preparation and trials have been underway with great enthusiasm. And this time around, India refuses to play catch up. In fact, Amit Marwah, Nokia expects proof of concepts for 5G rollout to begin by the end of the year. The company is amongst the leaders in the race for a 5G future.

Others like
Airtel and Huawei Technologies
have already conducted the first successful test of 5G networks at the beginning of this year in India. Base stations shipping from Nokia’s Chennai factory are already 5G ready, as are routers and other equipment required for telecom networks.

Technology-wise, India is ready. When telcos moved to 4G LTE, they switched from
circuit-switched to packet-switched
networks. Packet-switched networks are newer and future facing, allowing 5G to be deployed quicker. These networks are run using computer servers instead of physical switches. They also use optical fibre in place of copper cables, which were used on the older circuit-switched networks.

These packet-switched networks are at the core of future telecom infrastructure. And with leading telcos offering LTE services, their networks are already there. For instance, Jio has had a completely packet-switched network from day one.

Or Not…

While we may be ecstatic about India’s readiness for a 5G future, it may well be argued that its predecessor (4G), despite registering tangible growth, is still largely a Tier 1 phenomenon. That poses a very real issue for telcos in the country, and by extension the country itself. 2G has outlived its usefulness, but it still exists in India, as does 3G. These networks are tougher to upgrade because of reasons explained above.

“To capture the full opportunities of 5G, it will require an evolution of the whole network and not just parts of it. The best way to start would be to build an efficient 4G network and while doing that, modernise the legacy equipment that can only operate on 2G,” said Ericsson’s Bansal. “It is also important to prepare for automation of 5G operations as the increased opportunities and complexities of the 5G business landscape will require a much higher degree of automation and self-service,” he added.

Both Marwah and Bansal say that a roadmap for 5G is important . The Indian government has already set up panels for these, and spectrum auctions are next. The primary difference here is, the US plans to start 5G spectrum auctions by the end of 2018, while we’re yet to get word on that for India. In fact, telcos have asked for spectrum auctions to be deferred due to financial strain.

But consumers still have to wait…

A colleague recently asked me why India is talking about 5G when it could be focusing on 4G. And it’s true, 4G is yet to live out its life in the country. But then again, business is never truly done for consumer benefits. Businesses have higher spending power than consumers, and service providers go where the money is, especially with emerging technologies.

You may have read reports about how 5G will allow you to download movies in seconds. And that’s true, but that’s only when 5G becomes a mainstream affair. But as Marwah says, 5G initially will help where it can. And that, in essence, will be for enterprises.

In October 2017, Thomas Noren, Head of 5G Commercialisation at Ericsson
that operators will use 5G “not only in the consumer segment but also with enterprise users and specialised industries”. Noren was talking about the
Ericsson 2017 5G Readiness Survey

As Marwah correctly points out, deployment for enterprises doesn’t mean consumers won’t see the benefit. It’s just that mass rollout of 5G may take longer. When companies get better services, their own services can improve, which in turn helps you. Yet, that’s tough to quantify.

So, when will you actually feel the benefits of 5G? Qualcommrecently
tied up with about a dozen OEMs so that smartphones can start supporting 5G. When that happens, and it’s expected to by 2019, you will be able to “feel” the benefits of 5G. That is if telcos are ready by then.

When we say India will move to 5G by 2020 though, it will probably benefit businesses first. It helps in the Internet of Things, automobiles and more, that need low latency connectivity. Latency here means the time taken for data to travel from your phone/car to the required server. With 5G, latency can be as low as 1 millisecond, something Airtel also demonstrated in its test recently.

So, where does India stand?

Simply put, India is indeed en route to achieving 5G deployment by 2020. But you may not see tangible benefits of the same till at least a few years later. Aruna Sundararajan, Telecom Secretary and Chairman of India’s Telecom Commission, recently said that the National Telecom Policy of 2018 is going to include 5G spectrum auctions. These will likely be the 3300-3400Mhz/3400-3600MHz bands, as mentioned by Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha

As long as telcos are onboard to buy spectrum and the government works out the right regulations, India is indeed on track to move to 5G by 2020.

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