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5G A Catalyst to Achieve India’s Digital Transformation and Ambitious ‘Digital India’ Vision

Dr SP KochharLt Gen Dr SP Kochhar, Director General, The Cellular Operators Association of India(COAI) in an exclusive extensive interaction with Niloy Banerjee from BISinfotech shares strategies on implementing 5G in India, challenges and scopes for Telecom Companies in India, new trends, the impact of COVID-19, also purviews on the stated financial stress of the industry. Edited Nub Below.

Indian carriers have been busy conducting trials and implementing 5G-ready equipment, the way ahead?

5G will be the catalyst of the digital revolution and would be the key to achieve India’s digital transformation and the government’s ambitious Digital India’ vision in real sense. 5G will usher in novel business models enabling TSPs to offer innovative applications to individuals and to different economic verticals from industrial, commercial, educational, healthcare, agricultural, financial and social sectors. The feature of Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC) of 5G networks will also lead to the growth of a myriad of emerging technologies such as IoT, M2M, AI, AR, VR, blockchain and fixed wireless high-speed broadband networks. The 12-fold data growth due to online high-definition content consumption will open up new business opportunities and applications, thereby augmenting revenue streams for telecom operators. This is crucial as telecom is the very backbone of India’s digital revolution.

Operators are readying ‘networks of the future’ by deploying 5G technologies, forging partnerships, and developing use cases through 5G trials. New and emerging technologies such as Convergence, Big Data, IoT, AI, AR, Cloud and Robotics are bringing about transformational changes for individuals and enterprises alike. Technology advancements with the proliferation of broadband have led to the explosive growth of personal data creating opportunities for value creation and socio-economic development.

The planned 5G trials will further help identify India specific use cases and enable partnership models to emerge to actualize the full potential of this technology. The telecom industry for more than two decades has played a significant role in keeping the country not only connected but also operational and will continue to drive growth for India’s ambition to achieve a $5 trillion economy by 2024.

India has recently celebrated its 25 years of mobility, what is the new trends and future that the mobile communication industry is helming towards and COAI’s leading role in it?

Ever since the first mobile call, made on July 31, 1995, telecom service providers have always come through in difficult situations, keeping the citizens connected, the nation’s economy buzzing, governments functioning and the networks running. Surely, we hope to make further strides towards excellence and meet our goals. There are many sectors doing good work in their respective fields. But without Telecom linkages they would be isolated specks. Telecom interconnects and helps societies to be connected and communicable. It is like the nervous system of the human body.

Currently, the telecom companies are offering 4G/LTE with high upload/download speeds. 5G is the next generation of mobile networks, so, the task is cut out, as we expect and are working for a supportive policy framework & ecosystem to bring in the new technology.

The new trends about bigger dependence on digital platforms have emerged significantly because of pandemic and are here to stay. Online education, sundry online activities, including limited e-commerce activities, have not only helped in maintaining the well-being of the people of the country but have also ensured that some form of economic activity is maintained with the sector enabling 30-35% of the GDP during the period. Banking services and limited BPO/KPO (that were allowed to open up) and content and consultancy services were able to perform activities through a healthy network maintained by the telecom warriors.

We expect 5G deployments in India in the medium term and this leap forward in connectivity will enable the TSPs to significantly scale up their IoT and M2M offerings. IoT in India will grow at a much faster rate and it is estimated that there will be around 2.7 billion IoT units in India by end of 2020 and is estimated to be around 100 billion IoT Units by 2035.  The higher adoption level of IoT is expected in industries such as Manufacturing, Automotive, Transportation & Logistics and Utilities.  These will drive future revenue growth for telcos.

However, on a long term view, Edge Computing, Quantum computing, Blockchain, robotics and a whole lot of technologies will surely be playing a much critical role in the next 5 to 10 years.

How is COAI working towards to next level of reforms in order to uplift and strengthen the sector while initiating measures for the benefit of end consumers?

Despite the deep financial stress, the industry continues to ensure the uptime of their networks remains at 99.99% while maintaining the key quality of service parameters. When the dimension of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent, the industry quickly implemented its Business Continuity Plans that would ensure the networks would perform with no disruption, in the face of the challenges thrown up by the pandemic. Telcos have placed their personnel in Kirana stores, medical stores, grocery stores, mother dairies and other locations approved to be kept open by the government, so as to enable customers to top up their service packs. Online access through company websites have been streamlined and made easy to navigate and for payments to be made. The industry has also gone the extra mile to ensure those in the “bottom of the pyramid” receive some free voice services and SMS services during the period of the quarantine. All this was done to ensure the welfare of the end consumers and make sure that they are able to perform their activities digitally with ease.

The critical nature of mobile networks has become increasingly clear, especially as seen in the context of the most recent national and global emergency. In such a situation, it would not be cavalier to say that the health of the industry is also the health of the Nation. In such a scenario the Government support for a vibrant telecom sector is very critical. Given the ever-increasing demand for data and services on our networks, the Government must address the issue of the financial distress of the sector and provide immediate and timely relief, so that telcos can make the necessary investments in networks to ensure the robust connectivity and quality of services as per global standards.

NDCP 2018 has rightly recognized the requirement of catalyzing the investment in the sector by promoting ease of doing business. This includes a review of license fee, SUC, the definition of AGR, the principle of input line credit to avoid the double incidence of levies and making available new Spectrum bands for Access and Backhaul segments. Indian Government need to work on these issues at the earliest.

How is India moving towards Digital Networks?

The rapid adoption of the mobile phone, internet, social media platforms and expansion of digital payments has empowered hundreds of millions of Indians. This has been due to numerous initiatives by the Government and the industry to bridge the digital (and socio-economic) divide. Our Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi’s vision of Digital India and his stress on ‘Jaan hai tho Jahan Hai’ is a guidance for the telecom industry. The sector responded to this clarion call of the Hon’ble Prime Minister and is helping to ensure that the physical and mental health of billions of Indians is protected during the ongoing pandemic. The sector has given a new meaning to telecom being the ‘lifeline of the country’ by ensuring that everyone remains connected in this hour of need and that we can stay on course for the Industrial Revolution 4.0.

To move forward, it is very essential to address the financial stress of the industry, the telecom industry had approached the Ministry of Finance with key asks including providing soft loans against GST input credit due to Operators, to address the immediate liquidity crunch as also reducing the SUC by 3% for all TSPs and reducing Licence Fee (USOF Contribution) from 8% to 3%. The industry had also urged to exempt the levy of GST on License Fees, SUC and Payment of Spectrum debt acquired in auctions.  The industry has also sought the earliest allocation of the E & V bands (80GHz and 60GHz) for Backhaul, in order to meet the capacity requirements.

The Right of Way Rules, 2016 by DoT are progressive and forward-looking step to achieve the Digital India vision. It allows the uniform growth of telecom infrastructure in all States, as it provides for the process for grant of permissions for the installation of underground and overground telecom infrastructure, Single Window Clearance via an online portal, appointment of nodal officers and simplifying documentation.

Revenue of 5G network infrastructure is set to see generate massive market revenue globally with the growing number of CSPs are prioritizing 5G projects. How do you think India is revving up for this market sentiment and transformation? Any specific initiatives and dialogues COAI is representing to woo this segment?

5G, once commercialized, has the potential to positively impact the entire ecosystem in which we live and do our business. Enhanced connectivity and increased digitalization of services will also contribute significantly toward bringing in an inclusive society, empowering each and every one. 5G is not just about faster data speeds and seamless connectivity. It is about unique use cases, especially in the Indian context as technologies like autonomous driverless cars, smart irrigation, smart transportation and logistics, smart farming, drone patrolling for road safety, holograms and remote robotic healthcare and such would eventually enter into our ecosystem and become the order of the day.

The potential can be imagined by the fact that by 2026, there will be an estimated USD $619 billion revenue potential for telecom operators addressing 10 specific industries with 5G — manufacturing, energy and utilities, public safety, healthcare, public transport, automotive, media and entertainment, financial services, retail and agriculture. It has been forecasted by Ericsson that there will be around 230 million 5G subscriptions in India by 2025.

COAI TSP as well as OEM members have collaborated with various CSPs and have demonstrated various applications at the India Mobile Congress including Cloud gaming, Fixed Wireless access for enhanced mobile broadband to replace OFC in densely populated areas, Virtual Reality based Virtual classroom, 5G Surgical Consultation & Simulation; smart ambulance, Public safety-related application, 5G virtual soccer, Karaoke on 5G, Smart Agriculture, 5G hologram, Smart industrial manufacturing/factory, Virtual shopping experience. With WIPRO- drone-based warehouse management to improve logistics and inventory management, Smart and efficient airport boarding gates. As stated above, 5G would have a business case if there are applications for its use. In some other countries more than 100 use cases for 5G which have been built through initiatives from Govt, Academia, and Operators & Industry verticals. In India too, coordinated Govt. actions are required for enabling digital transformation across sectors (Health, Transportation, Energy, Agriculture etc).

Do you think the ongoing heat between India-China will affect the industry at a longer run?

We are in support of Prime Minister clarion call of “AtmaNirbhar”, we have the talent and we must monetize our capacity to create value, there might be some realignment in short to medium term but in the long run, it has the potential to be a force multiplier. There is a tremendous amount of opportunity in terms of creating value within the country, if we focus on certain aspects as a country, we can achieve a lot. Traditionally, we not invested heavily in R&D and hence have been left behind in the IPR game, so going forward we have to incentivize R&D if we want to make Atma Nirbhar Bharat a reality and must also consider Open Source as a serious business opportunity and become smarter at trade negotiations. This all has to be supplemented by a supporting ecosystem for businesses, where doing business is easy and convenient from approvals to trade practices.

Leading semiconductor and T&M companies are offering 5G-ready solutions to help reliability and low latency benefits, unlocking vast new applications and use cases also expanding testing and expansion of 5G wireless networks. COAI’s strategies to empower and exchange technology know-how for the growth of the industry?

To ensure the commercial deployment of 5G, a high level 5G India Forum has been instituted where experts across the globe are collaborating and discussing challenges and opportunities, making India a true 5G powered nation. The technology is poised to open up a plethora of possibilities in terms of business models, better education, healthcare, smart cities, smart manufacturing, intelligent logistics and overall, enhanced lifestyles for one and all. Thus, the Hon’ble Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi’s ambitious Digital India program and better telecom and internet connectivity cannot be separated from each other. 5G will open up new opportunities and catapult India’s transition towards digital empowerment. Further, Prime Minister announcement of taking optical fiber network to 6 lakh villages in the next 1,000 days, will give a boost to the adoption of the 5G service in the country.

COAI recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with 5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation (5G-ACIA), working party of ZVEI to shape and promote 5G mobile communications in different vertical industries, particularly in the manufacturing and process industry.5G India Forum (5G-IF) is a collaborative body under the aegis of COAI whereas 5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation (5G-ACIA) is a working party of ZVEI German Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers‘ Association.

The three years, a not-for-profit, MoU is signed with the purpose to cooperate with each other on issues related to 5G and its adoption for industry automation across sectors. Under the partnership, both bodies will identify topics of common interest and work to strengthen their relationship and foster closer cooperation on common agenda by joint participation in events, meetings, promotional activities and many other joint initiatives.

COAI members are collaborating with various technology providers including IBM, Red Hat, STL, etc. to make their networks technology ready for the onset of 5G. Going forward, we foresee many such technology tie-ups which will be key enablers for 5G in India.

Impact of COVID-19 in the industry how is COAI working alongside the Government to make an optimistic future-ready workforce and business sentiment.

While the Indian telecom industry has always been a key driver of the nation’s economic growth, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has brought its contribution to the forefront. The industry, despite its challenges and deep financial distress, has kept a nation of 1.3 billion connected in this difficult hour. Engineers and ground staff of telecom operators have kept the lights on 24×7 while India stayed safe inside their homes. Despite the surge in voice and data traffic, the industry has worked tirelessly to deliver 99% plus network availability in every corner of India. It has made sure everyone can call their loved ones, access the internet, children can attend school virtually and businesses can continue to operate from homes. Even for hundreds of millions of customers at the bottom of the pyramid, the industry has lent a helping hand by extending validity and crediting free talk time.

This would not have been possible without the support received from the Department of Telecommunication, Home Ministry (local police), Ministry of Health, State governments and others, as they are at the forefront fighting the Covid-19 virus. The critical nature of mobile networks has become increasingly clear, especially as seen in the context of the most recent national and global emergency.
In India, the telecom sector has once again proved to be the backbone of many other industries in the country. Technology solutions driven by robust data networks of telcos have helped in creating a virtual world for everyone, whether it was for businesses or for individuals. Thus, going forward telcos in India will need to redefine their business model.

Further, companies are now in a unique position to reimagine the future workforce, and of the workplace powered by technology. There thus exists an opportunity to accelerate the pace of digital transformation through the implementation of automation, robotics, cloud, and cognitive computing. By offering virtualization, cloud-based services, remote work, and enabling collaboration, the workplace can be altered forever.

COAI is working with the government and various agencies to prepare the industry for future technologies and enable a future-ready workforce. For example, recently in an endeavour to identify and promote applications relevant to India in the 5G realm, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has launched ”5G Hackathon” in association with a number of government, academia and industry stakeholders. COAI has been an active partner in this initiative. Total prize money of Rs 2.5 crore is spread across three phases.

India has major digital-revamp plans helping reach network accessibility and internet to the last mile. How do you see the way ahead, challenges and scopes?

Over the past two months, as most people were working from home due to the COVID-19 threat, it was the strength of the telecom network that kept the people and India going. The data services – video calling, education for children, binge-watching web series – ensured that people at home could work, play or study on the strength of high bandwidth connectivity. The voice network ensured migrants in cities could stay connected with their families in the villages. The Telecom industry has demonstrated that it has the resilience required to keep the nation connected, amidst a crisis

Going forward, AI-linked technologies such as smart transport and traffic management, smart manufacturing, smart agriculture, smart healthcare, autonomous vehicles, drones and telemedicine or remote consultation between doctors and specialists will be the building blocks of a sustainable future.

One of the critical aspects to benefit the end customer is how soon we can adopt new technologies and build on customer delight. Fiberization is a must to address the digital divide and to reach all parts of the country to empower the citizens. Growth of fibre is the foremost priority for the ongoing exponential increase in data demand and improved quality of services. Fiberization will surely meet the present requirement of bandwidth and future technologies such as 5G, emerging technologies etc. Apart from this, early allocation of E & V bands to meet the backhaul requirements is also a pending request of the industry which is being considered by the Government.

To ensure the proliferation of internet and telecom services Right of Way is going to be critical as of today industry face a lot of issues at ground level including high fees by local authorities etc.

COAI’s ahead plans for 2020 and any major announcements expected for the indigenous industry?

We expect that the coming year will usher in possible disruptions, hitherto unconceivable. Technology innovations, new revenue streams, new applications, new network configurations, new competitors, and all this will require significant investments to propel India to newer heights of economic growth and prosperity. With progress in Machine Learning and intense interest in smart technologies, Artificial Intelligence is also coming into the mainstream. This will bring many opportunities for operators in the form of AI based solutions for applications, services and underlying infrastructure. This may also be adopted to support the new digital infrastructure, improve customer service and reduce customer churn.

COAI and its member operators will continue their focus on building the new age digital infrastructure to support the nation and providing value to their customers, advocating for a stable, long term, sustainable, policy and regulatory environment which will promote innovation and orderly growth for a fully connected and digitally empowered India delivered through a financially strong and viable industry. Our members are gearing up for the uptake of 5G and they would announce their further plans. Reliance Jio has already developed a complete 5G solution from scratch, by young engineers, right here in India. This will enable RJio to launch a world-class 5G Services in India using 100% homegrown technologies and solutions. This Made-in-India 5G solution will be ready for trials as soon as 5G spectrum is available. Bharti Airtel Limited has tied up with Nokia to deploy SRAN solution to enhance current network capacity and make their network 5G ready with low latency and faster speeds. Vodafone Idea has been deploying 5G ready products in existing bands, incl. SRAN. A large no. of massive MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) are deployed in 2500 MHz, which can provide 5G as well. We also look forward to continuing our partnership with the Government and Regulator to achieve the above vision.

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Niloy Banerjee

A generic movie-buff, passionate and professional with print journalism, serving editorial verticals on Technical and B2B segments, crude rover and writer on business happenings, spare time playing physical and digital forms of games; a love with philosophy is perennial as trying to archive pebbles from the ocean of literature. Lastly, a connoisseur in making and eating palatable cuisines.

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