The year 2020 was a landmark year for the Indian telecom sector. The localised version of 5G standards, called 5Gi, was introduced and approved by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). While this is a big milestone and achievement for the Indian telecom industry, the adoption of 5Gi standards has received a lot of criticism from various segments of the industry. There are some supporters of the indigenous 5G standards who perceive this as a great opportunity to expand network coverage in the rural hinterland of India in a cost-efficient manner. However, many operators and vendors are concerned about issues such as non-interoperability between global and domestic 5G standards and the absence of a device ecosystem, which will hinder the adoption of 5Gi standards.
Key features of the 5Gi standard, arguments put forward in favour of and against its adoption, and the way forward…
The 5Gi standard was developed by IIT Hyderabad and IIT Madras under the guidance and support of the Telecommunications Standards Development Society of India. One of the key features of this standard is that it is based on low mobility large cell technology, which helps enhance the signal transmission range of a base station. This, in turn, can enable telcos to expand coverage several times over when compared with the current distance covered. This innovation is designed to enable telcos to expand 5G coverage in rural and remote areas in a cost-efficient manner.
The basic difference between 5Gi and the global 5G standards is that the former is designed to work on bands lower than the range of 5G bands otherwise. The global range standards for 5G networks are 700-52000 MHz. These are further divided into low frequency (less than 1 GHz bands), medium frequency (1-6 GHz bands) and high frequency (greater than 6 GHz bands) brackets. So far, India has been conducting 5G trials in the medium frequency range. Mobile service providers in India have regularly referred to the 1.8 GHz and 2.1 GHz bands for providing coverage. 5Gi networks work on lower bands on the spectrum and therefore can be used to offer a wider coverage area with every 5G transmitter.
Tata Consultancy Services, seven IITs and a host of domestic tech companies, including Saankhya Labs and Tejas Networks, have written to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to support the adoption of India’s own version of 5G tech standards. Experts believe that 5Gi is a better option for setting up rural connectivity as it is cost effective, improves spectral efficiency and reduces spectrum wastage of up to 11 per cent as compared to its global counterpart, the 3GPP-approved 5G standard.
Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea Limited, and top telecom gear makers and chipset vendors have termed the Indian 5G standard as a risky technology. These stakeholders voiced their concerns after DoT recently invited public comments on the adoption of 5Gi in the national standard by the Telecommunications Engineering Centre (TEC). The following are the key concerns highlighted by some of the operators and vendors with regard to 5Gi standards:
- Insufficient proof of validation of performance gains: In their joint submission to DoT, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea, Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, NEC, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung, ZTE, Altiostar, Mavenir and Mediatek urged the TEC to conduct a theoretical verification and field-level validation of performance gains of the 5Gi standard before making any call to mandate 5G deployment in the country. In addition, these companies highlighted that the fundamental premise or basis for the modification of the global 3GPP standard, in an exceptional situation, must be based on significant gains in cost, performance and network efficiencies. While enhancing rural coverage was the fundamental premise for making those modifications to the 3GPP, they soon ended up modifying additional aspects that had no relevance to the low mobility large coverage scenario for rural coverage. Moreover, any of the performance gains are yet to be proven on a commercial scale.
- Non-interoperability between global and domestic 5G standards: The telcos and vendors have also highlighted that 3GPP 5G radio and radio based on 5Gi are non-interoperable, which means that any handset based on 3GPP-based implementation will not work with 5Gi-based infrastructure and vice versa. It would also lead to delays in the availability of such 5Gi-based skews as the OEMs would have to redesign and establish separate production lines for these new skews. Overall, it would lead to delays and a higher cost, which is contrary to the objectives of driving down the cost of 5G for consumers in India. Non-interoperability between 5Gi and 3GPP will necessitate a dedicated licensed spectrum for both technologies. This would call for additional investment from operators that are looking to deploy 5Gi and 3GPP.
- Absence of a device ecosystem: Indian telecom operators have also informed DoT that the Indian 5G standard 5Gi does not have a device ecosystem and must therefore only be considered optional and non-mandatory for the industry. They said that making the standard mandatory would increase the prices of smartphones. Experts have also noted that since 5Gi is not globally harmonised, this will lead to costly devices and delays in its deployment. They also noted that 5G devices are required to support all licensed bands auctioned in India, including 2100 MHz and 1800 MHz, in both stand-alone and non-stand-alone 5G modes.
International reception to 5Gi
International trade and technology bodies based in the US and the UK have opposed the mandatory adoption of the Indian 5G standards. These bodies include the Information Technology Industry Council, the Telecommunications Industry Association, the UK India Business Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the US-India Business Council and the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum.
The industry bodies warned that doing so would jeopardise vital collaborative work on supply chain security, vendor diversification, and alternative network architectures such as open RAN, which will also rely on globally harmonised standards.
Moreover, the bodies informed DoT that establishing global specifications for 5G technology is a necessary first step in displaying greater collaboration among “QUAD” states. They have also requested DoT and the TEC to do “appropriate technical due diligence to confirm” the stated capabilities of the local 5G standard, 5Gi, during the assessment process.
The representatives of these bodies stated that adopting 3GPP’s 5G specifications as a national standard will improve India’s position as a manufacturing base for ICT goods and services.
The way forward
Going forward, the government should take into an account the concerns expressed by the industry regarding the 5Gi standards and chart out a strategy that addresses these concerns while adopting 5G standards. Some industry stakeholders have proposed a more technology-neutral approach for 5G and have suggested that the government must make efforts for the global harmonisation of 5G standards by making them a part of 3GPP. They also urged the government to avoid mandating any specifications for consumer devices because they are market-driven. Meanwhile, the Cellular Operators Association of India stated that 5Gi lacked a device ecosystem and that efforts need to be made to make it a part of 3GPP. It stated that 5G standards should support both consumers and the industry, and the Indian government must play a facilitating role.
On its part, DoT has formed a committee to devise a strategy for the commercialisation and monetisation of 5G and the locally developed 5Gi standards. The committee has been set up under member (technology), DoT, and is entrusted with seeking inputs from stakeholders, including telecom operators and network providers, regarding both the technologies by March 2022. DoT is also planning to prepare a strategy for the development of the 5G ecosystem and 5G-based applications in the country.