5G is the buzzword for the last few years in India. The hype that it created like “the movies of size 2GB can be downloaded in a few minutes” is everywhere for the last few years. 5G based mobile phones are in the market from 2020 and even low-cost 5G phones of less than 15000 INR there in the market. But why are customers not able to use 5G based mobiles in India. Until now no service providers are announcing their 5G services to customers. There are several reasons for this. Few of them are discussed here
Usecase for 5G
Mobile wireless communication has evolved from 1G to the current 5G technology. Every evolution has improved voice quality, data speed, and reliable communication from the previous generation. Data services have been introduced from 2G. Since 3G, every transition saw a major leap in data speed & this data speed transition was a talking factor in every progression. When 3G got introduced in 2010(in India), it provided enough speed to view YouTube videos(SD resolution) without any interruption and eased to use of GPS in mobile phones. Thanks to JIO, 4G got widely adopted after 2016. This helped users with videoconferencing, viewing HD youtube videos, and watching OTT streaming platforms with much ease. Recently introduced 5G is advanced and it is 60 to 120 times faster than its predecessor 4G. Low latency is one of the important features of 5G which helps in achieving this speed. Due to 5G’s low latency strength, millions of devices can be connected within a square km. data transfer close to 100Mbps between devices can be achieved.
Though 5G is a very advanced and very high speed, real use cases with 5G are complex and will take more time to deploy in the user environment. For example, one of the 5G use cases is the efficient implementation of the connected cars technology. In connected car technology, the vehicle is always connected to the internet via an embedded chipset or SIM inside the vehicle. A connected vehicle can send/access the data in the cloud, download software updates, and connect with other devices(IoT devices). With multiple sensors in the vehicle, the vehicle can share its current location, driver behavior, engine diagnostics, and vehicle activity (telematics) & surrounding environmental conditions to the cloud. This different collected/processed information from the cloud can help a driver and other passengers inside the vehicle. These include safety, entertainment, vehicle management, breakdown prevention, and many more
Big data transfer speed associated with 5G helps to assist the drivers, and passengers inside the vehicle in quick time. Example: Real-time monitoring of the vehicle’s part and a back-end algorithm predicts breakdowns associated with the part. This can be informed via phone, SMS, or push notification from the cloud.
Currently, in India connected cars adoption itself is in the infant stage, so it will take at least a decade to get mature. Though there are few vehicle manufacturers like MG that started releasing connected SUVs to market. Still, we are several years away from building full 5G based connected vehicles, as apart from in-vehicle technology, vehicle to infrastructure(V2I) related connectivity needs to be built from scratch. This V2I helps vehicles to communicate with road infrastructure and share/receive information such as traffic/road/weather conditions, speed limits, accidents
As like above-explained use case, though 5G has several advanced use cases like smart cities, autonomous vehicles, sports broadcasting, immersive entertainment, it may take several years to get adopted, unlike 4G for which it took only a few years.
Base station upgrades
Traditionally base station in wireless communication is used for connecting different wireless devices. These base stations nowadays are small and lie even in our housetops also. Since 5G technology (for higher speeds) uses higher frequency radio waves, different than earlier 4G LTE standards, base stations need to be revamped for 5G standards. Like its old predecessor 4G, 5G too can operate in low and mid bands of spectrum, but the speed associated with the 5G comes in higher bands of the spectrum(mmWave)(up to 20Gbps possible). To update the current 4G LTE-based base stations to 5G, multiple modifications like an additional set of antenna arrays, and transmitting devices are required. Since 5G differs significantly in the spectrum, modulation technique, these modifications are needed.
mmWave based 5G: Though mmWave which operates in a high band spectrum of 24Ghz — 40Ghz, helps to achieve max speed, it travels very short distances, also signals get easily lost/blocked in case of obstacles like trees. So 5G operating in a high band(mmWave) requires more towers when compared to its predecessor 4G. Small cell technology can help to alleviate some of the problems associated with mmWave based implementation.
These small cell-based towers are low-powered and don’t require much power like 4G. they can be positioned in ordinary places like street lights, traffic signals, electric poles. In India, small cell-based tower implementation is still in a very nascent stage. There is no framework yet initiated by the government for placing small cell towers in more affordable locations. Theoretically, small cell towers operate under permissible RF radiation levels. More study is needed in India before implementation in densely populated areas. Cellular Operators Association of India(COAI) is currently working with the government on defining the places where these small cells can be placed. The addition of more small cells will not be cheap, it adds further burden to carriers like airtel, Vodafone during the initial implementation. Since delicensing of mmWave is still under discussion mmWave based 5G is still a far dream. Even in developed countries, mmWave based implementations are limited and currently
Sub-6Ghz based 5G — India’s best choice: Sub-6Ghz based 5G operates in mid-band between 2.4Ghz — 6Mhz. Though sub-6ghz based cannot produce enough speed like mmwave, it is better than 4G LTE in speed terms. China has rolled out sub-6ghz for its population. For India, sub-6Ghz is more suited(for now), and currently, all service providers favor sub-6Ghz due to the limited cost of 5G upgrades and more affordable to the users. Even most of 5G based mobiles currently in the Indian market are based on sub-6Ghz based.
5G’s major use cases are associated with artificial intelligence, robotics, and autonomous vehicles. All these use cases involve millions or even billions of devices interconnected and data in order of terabytes are transferred between them. Also, the nation’s critical infrastructure and safety-critical systems including water supply, electricity, hospitals will be interconnected using 5G in the future. There is a security risk that these millions of devices (connected under 5G) can be compromised in a very quick time in case of any hostile nation wants to wreck another country. As a consequence, countries cannot view 5G as just another leap in telecommunications. Nations view 5G’s strategic technology as critical national infrastructure.
RAN — Radio Access network is part of wireless infrastructure. It includes antennas, base stations, and much more and it connects networked devices like mobile phones and autonomous vehicles to optical fibre internet. Conventional telecom equipment manufacturers like Nokia, Huawei, and Ericsson come with RAN architecture proprietorial to them. Hardware parts are not interoperable between different equipment makers. Switching the existing network to another manufacturer for equipment will cost billions, making wireless carriers remain withcorresponding equipment manufacturers locked for years or even decades. Hardware and software associated with telecommunication technology were earlier dominated by western, European countries, but in recent years Chinese telecommunication equipment are deployed at a much larger pace in developing countries due to its cheap cost.
Chinese has successfully built 5G solutions end to end catering to different use cases like video surveillance, artificial intelligence, Due to geopolitical tussles, already countries started using either their indigenous telecommunication solutions or solutions from allies. Australia recently banned Chinese 5G solutions, primarily from Huawei-based 5G equipment. Australian national security team was able to unequivocally conclude that 5G based on Chinese was a clear security risk, an entire national grid of telecommunications can be made useless in case of any war.
In the case of India, many of our current telecommunication equipment (for 3G/4G) associated with service providers like BSNL, Airtel, and Vodafone are based on Chinese origins like Huawei and ZTE. Though recently India didn’t allow its service providers like Airtel, Vodafone to use Chinese equipment for 5G trials(in May 2021), Neither India still didn’t have any blanket ban on Chinese equipment like the US or Australia nor it didn’t formulate any committee to study the ill effects of Chinese equipment (like the UK or Australia did) for telecommunication carriers. Recently another service provider namely JIO announced their entire 5G solution will be indigenous was encouraging
Spectrum allocation, Initial investments, and ARPU cost
Spectrum auctions happened in India over the last several years related to 2G,3G, and 4G. Spectrum auctions are lifelines for service providers. GoI owns the spectrum of airwaves and its auctions to various service providers. These frequency bands related to the auction include 900Mhz to 2400Mhz. In the last few years, GoI could not get the expected spectrum price. For example, in 2016, GoI expected 3.92 lakh crore from auctions, but after the auction, it was able to grab only 60000 crores. Telcom companies are already facing increased financial stress due to disruptive prices. There is more doubt about how successful, the auction will be for 5G if the government sets a very increased price like in 2016. Along with costs needed for revamping the 5G infrastructure, this spectrum cost will further burden service providers.
ARPU an acronym stands for Average revenue per unit. It is used by telecom companies to identify the profitability generated from each of its users or subscribers. Service providers can increase their capital investment only if ARPU increases. In the case of 5G, for the Indian market, there is still a dearth of 5G based use cases. ARPU increase for a typical period w.r.t 5G, is still unknown. This adds another risk to the service providers. Since the initial capital investment for 5G is big & financial liability for the 4G to 5G transition is already adding more stress to service providers if the ARPU didn’t improve for a service provider in the specific period. It will create a big risk of closing the service itself
5G technology cannot be seen as an incremental improvement, it is fundamentally transformative and disruptive for multiple businesses. As more countries incorporate the 5G, India can take a cue from countries like Singapore, Egypt, China, and Hongkong for efficient implementation. Though 5G can enable digital transformation to build a better-connected environment, its path of transition from 4G to 5G involves multiple challenges as explained here.
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