5G is expected to bring some key improvements to the current generation of mobile networks with regard to data transfer speed, latency and throughput. Besides, the next-generation mobile network is also expected to enable the full potential of the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem, bringing to reality the concept of connected homes, office spaces, vehicles, and more.
Considering the benefits of 5G, at least in terms of what it promises on paper, and given India's growing demand for data services, it is safe to assume that the technology would help put the country's dream of a digital economy on the fast track. However, despite several developments on the 5G front, the next-generation network does not appear to be anywhere close to getting rolled out in the country.
Here is an explainer detailing everything you need to know about 5G in India:
What is 5G?
5G is a mobile network touted to offer faster data transfer speeds than the current generation (4G) at a lower latency rate and higher throughput to handle more active connections simultaneously.
To understand 5G better, it is important that we know about data transfer speeds, latency rate and throughput, because these, as shown above, are the basic parameters that define 5G.
Data transfer speed: Calculated in seconds, data transfer speed is the maximum volume of information transferred between two systems every second. For example, if a broadband connection has a 100Mbps speed, it can handle up to 100 Megabits of data every second. Therefore, the higher the data transfer speed, the more is the volume transferred every second.
Latency rate: It is the total time taken for a piece of information to move from one location to another. Voice lag during internet calling and skipped frame rates during online gaming sessions are two examples that explain the concept of latency rate. These happen due to high latency rate, which causes a delay in the exchange of information. This is calculated in milliseconds. A lower latency rate translates into a faster connection speed.
Throughput: It is a network's capacity to handle active connections simultaneously. A network congestion is the result of a network getting overloaded beyond its throughput limit.
How does 5G work?
5G is not just an extension of 4G. It is the first wireless network capable of reaching transfer speeds in the Gbps ballpark using the millimetre wave frequency. However, it also requires mid-band and low-band frequencies used in the 4G network to work optimally.
The millimetre wave frequency operates in a spectrum above the 24GHz band. In this spectrum band, the information transfer speed is extremely fast, but it is prone to distortion, affected by obstructions like walls. However, it is the only spectrum band that delivers a true 5G experience.
For a stable connection that could work indoors and in congested streets, there is a low frequency band operating in the sub-1GHz spectrum. Though it does not deliver the speed of 5G, it is consistent and reliable for a vast coverage area.
The mid-band frequency operates in between 1GHz and 6GHz spectrum bands, therefore it provides a balanced mix of speed, consistency and reliability. It is the most practical spectrum for 5G network as it covers a fair amount of area, provides decent transfer speed, and does not get affected by obstructions.
The frequencies in low, mid and millimetre bands of spectrum form an ecosystem for the 5G network to work efficiently. The 5G network also supports an adaptive beam-switching technology that allows connected devices to seamlessly move from one band to another without losing connectivity — something that the current-generation network lacks.
5G spectrum: The cause for dissent in India
Spectrum plays a crucial role in delivery of 5G services. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has identified 35 MHz of spectrum in the 700MHz frequency band, and 300 MHz of spectrum in the midrange band of 3.3GHz to 3.6GHz. However, of the 35 MHz of spectrum in the low-frequency (sub-1GHz) band, Indian Railways has demanded 10 MHz, leaving only 25 MHZ for telecom operators. Even the 300 MHz of spectrum from the midrange band is not fully available for telcos. In this band, the space and defence departments have staked claim to 25 MHZ and 100 MHz units, respectively, leaving only 175 MHz of spectrum for telecom operators.
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Though the spectrum in millimetre wave frequency band is available in abundance, DoT has not been able to put it up for auction, thanks to competing claims from the defence, railway, and space departments.
Also, for the little spectrum that is availabile for telcos, the price recommended by the Telecom Regulatory and Authority of India (Trai) is prohibitively steep. That has further cooled telcos' interest in 5G spectrum. Trai had suggested a pan-Indian base price of Rs 492 crore per MHz for 5G radiowaves, and lowering of the base price for low-band frequencies that remained unsold in the 2016 auctions. The regulator has also put a condition that the airwaves in the 3.3GHz to 3.6GHz band will be auctioned in a block size of 20 MHz.
Industry view: No takers
Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) Director-General Rajan S Mathews told Business Standard that telcos were not interested in bidding for 5G spectrum due to inadequate availability of spectrum in the right frequency bands. Each telecom operator requires at least 100 MHz of spectrum in the 3.3GHz to 3.6GHz band to start with, but with defence, railway and space departments claiming 125MHz, a telco would get no more than 60MHz; that would be insufficient, he added. Similarly, the 25 MHz of spectrum available in the sub-1GHz (700MHz) frequency band will not be enough for telcos to increase their 5G network coverage — three telecom players would require at least 10 MHz each.
Mathews also pointed out that most countries had cleared spectrum in the 26GHz band for mobile services, but DoT's recent proposal, on the recommendation of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), to reduce the transmission capability of mobile base stations operating in the 26GHz band, has made it less lucrative for the telcos.
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On the sidelines of the India Mobile Congress in October 2019, Gopal Vittal, Bharti Airtel's managing director (MD) & chief executive officer (CEO) for India and South Asia, had said that 5G spectrum would be unaffordable at the prices recommended by Trai and hoped the government would reduce the price.
Vittal’s concern, raised in an investor call in May 2019, was echoed in June by former Vodafone-Idea CEO Balesh Sharma, who said the current reserve price for 5G spectrum was “exorbitant”.
Meanwhile, Reliance Jio Infocomm, part of the Mukesh Ambani-led group and the newest telecom player in India, had earlier been silent on the issue of spectrum availability. But at the inaugural session of the India Mobile Congress in October, the company’s director, Mahendra Nahata, had said that the 5G spectrum price needed to be critically looked at. Higher floor prices would make 5G networks unviable and delay their rollout.
ALSO READ: Reliance Jio joins industry chorus for low spectrum pricing
According to Mathews, a few countries are offering 5G spectrum free of cost to telecom operators, considering their long-term benefits. Even if it cannot be made free, Trai could at least reduce the price and match it with what other countries are charging for 5G spectrum. The 5G spectrum price recommended by Trai was much higher than the global average, he noted.
Privacy and security: Bottlenecks
The 5G network will be significantly more complex than the mobile network of previous generations. In addition to providing voice and data services, it will be used to enable the full potential of IoT devices, artificial intelligence, automation and other enterprise-centric technologies. Therefore, 5G requires a complete overhaul of network base stations to make them software-backed, with optic-fibre backhaul for efficient operations.
Since 5G network would be based on software, there would be a greater security risk as connected devices might be potentially exploited for access to critical information. And, a software-based network might also make it easier for hackers to insert back doors into products and these would be hard to detect.
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Therefore, the 5G network might even lead to some questions around privacy and security, especially with regard to the role of equipment manufacturer.
5G equipment manufacturers: East or West?
Privacy and security concerns in 5G run parallel to issues related to the availability and base price of spectrum issues, creating further bottlenecks in network rollout. Until now, China’s Huawei had been one of the preferred choices for most Indian telcos for their network gears at the of building 2G, 3G and 4G networks. However, the US' ban on the use of Huawei gears, citing privacy and security issues, has jeopardised the Chinese major's 5G plans globally, including in India.
Time and again, Huawei has emphasised the benefits of its cost-effective “supreme” 5G network equipment and asserted that keeping the company out of the 5G play in the country will be a loss to telecom operators, end consumers and vertical industries that could be potential beneficiaries of the futuristic technology. Additionally, the company also claimed that rollout of 5G technology would become expensive if the company was blocked from competition.
ALSO READ: Keeping us out of 5G will be a loss to industry, users: Huawei India CEO
However, Swedish telecom equipment maker Ericsson has discarded the claim that the cost of 5G network rollout in India would increase if Huawei was barred from competition. The company’s chief technology officer, Erik Ekudden, told Business Standard in a recent interview: “We have by far the largest contribution to standardisation. Also, by independent assessments, we also have the most relevant patent portfolio for 5G. No one has approved patents yet. But, based on independent assessments, we are leading. A report by Bird & Bird says we are leading by a margin when it comes to standard essential patents that are relevant to 5G.”
Finnish telecom gear maker Nokia has so far maintained a distance from commenting on the US-Huawei controversy. However, it also agrees that Huawei’s claim of technological superiority may be overblown.
Telecom infrastructure: Ready for 5G-like, but not 5G
There are two type of globally accepted 5G network deployment modes – non-standalone and standalone. Non-standalone is created to speed up the 5G adoption. It does not require major changes to network infrastructure, as it works on the existing LTE network system. Standalone, on the other hand, is a complex deployment, as it requires a complete overhaul of infrastructure to make it ready for the software-based technology with the optic-fibre backhaul needed for standalone 5G networks.
While telecom operators have a long way before they deploy standalone 5G infrastructure — due to a variety of reasons, including additional overhead costs that add to capital expenditure — they are gradually upgrading their existing networks by deploying gears like multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) antennas. That would essentially prepare them to deploy non-standalone 5G in the future.
Commenting on the current state of telecom infrastructure, COAI’s Mathews said: “…5G would require new network towers for better coverage. Going by the past record, erecting new towers has not been easy for operators; they hit roadblocks on account of delayed approvals. Therefore, operators are investing in upgrading existing network assets that help both 4G and 5G services — laying optical fibres and using MIMO antennas, etc.”