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India Distantly Close Towards 5G?

5G network

On an average, a person checks his/her phone the moment they open their eyes from their slumber. The concept of connected devices has brought us very close to our devices. As the technology advances, the demand for a stronger and faster network increases. When was the last time you were sipping coffee while watching a buffering video and thinking to yourself that no matter what you pay for your plans and the device, the network still doesn’t seem to improve?

This is the scenario we know in India. The Governments’ decision to roll out 5G networks all over India by 2020 has made the users skeptic about what might the possible case be for the users while we struggle with the current 4G situation in India.

Starting my journey and intrigued to dig in a little further than what we know and what Indians can expect from the most talked about “Telecom Game Changer – 5”. Therefore, we talked to the industry veteran looping, Ms. R. Ezhirpavai- Assistant Vice President – Technology, Aricent; Atul Deshpande, Regional Account Manager-India, VIAVI Solutions and Ashish Kapoor- Director and CEO, Vedang Cellular Services Pvt. Ltd. (A Quess Company), henceforth,  what followed was an extremely erudite session where we got a broader perspective of the awaited 5G technology in India.

The 5G network, abbreviated from the 5th-Generation Wireless Systems, has special features like high throughput, low latency, high mobility and high connection density. With the introduction of 5G, India plans to give its rural part a boost and resolving real issues within e-healthcare, e-education, infrastructure and e-governance. High-speed broadband serves as the pillar for digital transformation, and will be the top priority for telecom service providers, the government and the citizens alike. India is gearing up for the next revolution and drawing a roadmap for the launch of 5G services by 2020. When we asked, how they thought about India revving-up for the 5G transformation, Ms. R Ezhirpavai noted, “Global operators like Vodafone are working towards launching 5G in India along with rest of the world. Other operators are also following suit. The reason it will be available early in India is due to the enormous potential number of devices for smart home, smart city, etc. In fact some operators like Airtel have already deployed Massive MIMO in some cities which is a direction towards 5G. India had so far been lagging when new technology launches were taking place. With early 5G launches in India, we see many application vendors jumping on the bandwagon to create many value added applications in all spheres targeting Indian consumers which require low latency and thus leveraging 5G.  Due to India’s large landscape, with some areas being remote, having an edge network will drastically reduce the latency for the apps. Thus, many value added apps will be launched which will provide better quality of experience to the users due to better latency.

One additional trend seen in India is that data usage amongst normal subscribers picked up drastically when Reliance Jio launched its services which offered apps which were highly appealing. Apps like live video streaming for IPL games, video on demand, television etc. were a major reason for usage of data. Quality of Experience and the demand for videos on 5G can be highly enhanced with edge networks which can cache the data and provide the content with low latency. This will allow 5G to be a replacement of cable. Even today many households in India have cable and fiber has not reached the last mile at multiple places. 5G maybe a replacement in these areas.”

Atul Deshpande, further added that, “One of the key steps towards 5G is identifying the right spectrum band for rolling out the technology. India’s Department of Telecoms and the Telecom Regulator is laying the groundwork for the auction of 5G spectrum under 6 GHz and above 6 GHz, more in sync with global 5G deployment plans. Under the “Make in India” initiative, the Indian Government is working with leading device manufacturers to build 5G smartphones in India and provides incentives for them. Various device makers are gearing up for the same.

Most of the Indian Telcos, including state owned operators, are aggressively rolling out fiber across the country. Some of the telcos have already carried out 5G lab trial demonstrating more than 1 Gbps DL speeds and soon they have plans to go out for field trials. Currently, telcos in India either have upgraded their networks to 4.5G or are in the process of upgrading to 4.5/LTE-A Pro or beyond, inching closer to 5G. Moreover, under the government’s ambitious NFON (BBNL) project, every village panchayat is getting 100 mbps broadband by 2020 mostly on Fiber.”

5th Generation

Ashish Kapoor narrated, “The tremendous rise in data usage and fast changing usage behavior coupled with the growth in demand for IoT devices and applications presents a need for more powerful, more robust telecom networks that 5G can deliver. For this, virtualization of the core networks is one of the most important prerequisites. It’s encouraging that all major operators in India and across the globe are talking about it. From an ecosystem perspective, the industry is readying for 5G deployments and we see 5G devices and second generations of chipsets that go into smartphones and tablets becoming available in globally around 2019-2020.The technological advancements of 5G will, in part, help the government make a renewed push for its “Digital India” initiative and cashless economy. There have been encouraging signs from the Government of India on 5G rollouts, whether it’s been around spectrum or academic research. The Government has set up a 5G India 2020 forum comprising secretaries, experts and academics that will be working towards the vision, mission, and goals of 5G service in the country. The Telecom Minister as well as the other Government functionaries have come out saying that while India may have lagged in earlier technologies, it will be one of the early adopters of 5G.”

5G network deployment in India might not be as easy as one imagines, India still in its major digital transformation mode, this might bring along hurdles. India as we know, its 4G networks are still facing bottlenecks in terms connectivity and bandwidth. In this scenario, the 5G topology will be a game-changer. We inquired about if they believed that India has the set standards, regulations, infrastructure to create a whole new ecosystem? Atul Deshpande responded “There are major opportunities to create a whole new ecosystem. Regulators, telcos and the entire industry is working towards addressing some of these bottlenecks before 5G gets deployed. The government’s ambitious BBNL project is set to take 100 mbps broadband to 700,000 villages (250,000 Gram Panchayats), and funding for the rollout for a fiber optic network across the country by 2020. They have made great progress in achieving various milestones.

In India, the average mobile user consumes approx. 11 GB of data per month on 4G-LTE, which is far more than consumption in countries including the UK, South Korea or France. With more than 1 billion mobile subscribers, the 4G network in India is operating at full capacity or is already maxed out.  Telcos are currently augmenting capacity, by adding spectrum, as well as densifying the network by rolling out Small Cells and upgrading the backbone capacity on Fiber.

Moreover, the Indian regulator is working with 3GPP and ITU to include India specific 5G regulation in the current 5G specifications related to last mile mobility.”

To this, Ms. R Ezhirpavai smiled and said, “The connectivity issues are due to 3 reasons:

  1. Base stations are congested and cannot handle more subscribers.
  2. Coverage of signals in relevant areas are due to non-availability of spectrum in different areas.
  3. Coverage of signals in relevant areas is due to operators not installing antennas owing to cost.

With #2, operators see this as a loss for their revenues and they would be vying to get more spectrum in different areas. This was witnessed in the 700 MHz auction in India, when none of the operators had participated in the bid to acquire that spectrum. This shows that the operators were not losing customers due to non-availability of spectrum. They could not see a cost advantage by adding more base stations or antennas in congested or remote areas.

To a certain extent, 5G could increase capacity (if millimetre wave is used). 5G could solve congestion issues in dense urban areas, but it would not solve coverage issues. In dense urban areas, 5G could be used with millimetre wave to support more users per base station. Since millimetre wave cannot penetrate much, it may be used mostly outdoors where antennas are on line of sight.”

India Distantly

Kapoor noted, “While moving towards the new technology is compelling and inevitable, powering 5G would also mean massive initial investments for telcos. The operators will have to buy more spectrum as well as put in new electronics underlying the 4G network. It is in this context that the government in India is putting in a road map for 5G services for which a high-powered committee has been set up. This road map, which is still under discussion, broadly envisages earmarking the 5G spectrum band which the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) promises to do by June this year, followed by trial runs by most telcos on their networks in restricted spots in 2019 and possibly limited commercial launch by 2020.Both Airtel and Jio are investing in massive multiple input-multiple output (MIMO) technology, which increases base station capacity 5-7 times and cuts interference substantially, boosting transmission signal to devices. “With 5G standards finalized, India has a golden opportunity to catch up with the world.” Ericsson, which conducted a live 5G service demonstration last year with speeds of 5.7 GHz at an event, is already talking to telecom operators rolling out 4G networks to offer them upgraded software to enable 5G. Jio says its 4G network is already 5G-enabled. Bharti Airtel, on the other hand, has just conducted lab testing on 5G in collaboration with Huawei. It has also signed an agreement with South Korean S K Telecom to work towards the evolution of 5G.”

Just like how the telecommunication industries are always on the run to introduce or optimize their devices that can support the wireless systems. We enquired to our veterans about the reports being tossed around i.e., that 5G smartphones is claimed to be too expensive as chipset makers will be selling chipsets at a premium price. The challenges of 5G being our main focus of the interaction, we wanted to know how far was that true and further what more challenges does India foresee after the 5G launch?

“5G is offered in various modes. 5G enabled smartphones may be costlier, but not in all cases. When 5G is used in non-standalone mode (along with 4G), the smartphone needs to support 2 active transmission antennas.” said Ms. R. Ezhirpavai. “This would affect the cost. But if 5G is used in standalone mode, then it would need to transmit only with one antenna at a time and hence not affecting the cost much. When 5G is used with massive MIMO, there will be an array of antennas. This also will affect cost, but may not be the only option of using 5G. If 5G is used in sub 6 GHz, then the cost of a smartphone may be like the cost of 4G. 5G will provide around 15-20% gain over 4G in this case.”

VIAVI Solutions’, Deshpande seemed quite certain about his response and said, “I am not sure about such reports. 5G devices are in early stage of development and will take some time to reach a tipping point before prices drop significantly.  There are reports in the media on leading chipmakers working on plans, but not sure if any actual 5G devices will be available by 2018 or early 2019.

We do see Indian telcos rolling 5G around a similar timeframe. Some of them already carried lab trials successfully demonstrating initial 5G capabilities. The Phase-I 5G deployment, which is more of enhanced mobile broadband, talks about delivering a few hundred mbps user throughput. India might face challenges in the first few months after rollout in meeting the User Level throughput requirements, given the fact that 5G will be available at a few locations.

There are challenges on the 5G handsets front, as no device maker has announced 5G devices yet. This should be synced with the telco 5G rollout plan. If the pricing of early 5G devices is going to be on the higher side (which is normally true), then the adoption of 5G will be a slow process, resulting in delaying 5G rollout further. The government and the regulator might step in to address some of the issues, but initially we do see 5G rollout not meeting some of those excited expectations around it.

In the long-term, as 5G matures, we see different use cases (beyond mobile form factors. This should bring regulatory challenges before network rollout happens, especially in areas including 5G Drones, Connected Cars etc.”

“With so many options available on handset side, and the competitive market that it is, we are sure to see prices stabilize. The main challenge that India might face would be network stability and customer expectations with more and more devices being connected.” said A. Kapoor.

The interaction was indeed taking an interesting turn and we have had discussions on a lot of things we were uncertain about already. The 5G game up for India and its effective implementation of the RoW policy is critical for the expansion of fiberization from the present levels of around 20% to the target of 80% necessary for a widespread roll-out of 4G, which is a prerequisite for 5G.

Fast fiberization of existing infrastructure and reasonably priced spectrum will be critical to the deployment of a reliable 5G network, which could be the backbone of India’s future economic progress. Ms. R Ezhirpavai added, “5G will require high capacity when used in millimetre wave. The most beneficial use of millimetre wave will be in dense urban outdoor places like stadiums, etc. Since areas where such coverage is minimal, fiber is required only in specific areas.

Also, if 5G is used for fixed wireless, then instead of cable, fibre is required for the “last mile connectivity”. It may not be fibre to the home, as the fibre may not come to the home and instead a 5G connection can be used for a high speed connection.”

Deshpande, affirmatively noted on fiberization being a critical backhaul for India and its 5G milestone to which he said, “Absolutely. There’s no alternative to fiber. We strongly believe that, without a nationwide fiber backbone, 5G (or even 4G) speeds won’t meet the expected user throughput. Most of the leading telcos have been aggressively rolling fiber-last mile for quite some time now.

Moreover, it’s also important to keep upgrading the network capacity, by adding spectrum on radio side, utilising unlicensed spectrum bands, deploying technologies including mMIMO and Antenna Beamforming to mitigate capacity related challenges.”

  1. Kapoor closely analyzed, “With 5G requiring highest capacity backhaul to deliver its intended peak data rates, fibre has become a critical backhaul and transport technology. Most leading telecom operators are committed to and investing in fiber, and the government is leading the way through BharatNet. Still, there needs to be an urgency around fiberisation—5G is intended to support mission-critical applications such as financial transactions and healthcare, and latency and high speed will be achieved by fiberisation. Yes, while there are known challenges, India has the opportunity to leapfrog and be ready for 5G sooner than expected. Recent developments suggest that steps are being taken to address these challenges. Already, the industry and the government are committed, and the coming together of the ecosystem will enable us to be ready.”

The telecommunication sector is buckiling up their laces for the big 5G network introduction, so it was vital that we knew, how our leading companies were getting ready to bring on 5G. “Viavi Solutions in India is working on a number of fronts to help the 5G ecosystem”, said Deshpande. “First, we work with various Smart Cities and BBNL/NFON enablers by helping them to monitor fiber intelligently, by reducing MTTR on fiber faults from hours to a few minutes, saving money on fiber OPEX. Moreover, we work with all the leading telcos and are helping them realise their investments on fiber rollouts, by monitoring every meter of fiber and keeping count of dark, as well as live fiber.

As 5G networks will have very stringent latency and BER requirement on front hauls (Part of the cell site), our Metro solutions are helping telcos to validate 4G/4G-A/5G front-haul deployments, which is a very critical component of 5G. Viavi’s pioneering cell site testing solutions are already capable of Spectrum Scanning at Sub 6 GHz and 24-30 GHz 5G Spectrum. Leading telcos have already invested in our solutions for 4G and Interference testing, and are evaluating 5G spectrum solutions. Moreover, our products offer NB-IoT validation solutions and some of the leading telcos who are aggressively planning NB-IoT deployments are working with us for field verification.

Viavi has built a mobile analytics engine, NITRO Mobile, which allows telcos to gain insights on mobile events across various interfaces, allowing them to optimise customer experience across the network.”

Ms.  R Ezhirpavai prompted, “Aricent is working in India on the transition to 5G in various ways – we are developing the software frameworks for 5G access, UE and the core. We are also working with vendors to migrate their existing infrastructure to virtualized cloud based infrastructure for 5G. Recently, Aricent has also helped carriers to setup data centres to host 5G infrastructure and we are also helping carriers to set up edge compute platforms so that they can allow application developers to create low latency applications and leverage edge compute nodes to giving better QoE to Indian subscribers.”

A Challenge for India or not, 5G is due soon and it is yet to be seen that, the so sought-low latency and the network with a high speed stands up to what we expect from it. There’s a lot that India has on its bucket list and wishes to achieve. The Modi-led Government with its Digital India even in the nooks and corner of India has already been initiated, what the people are looking forward to is whether the 5G promise will make India the full technologically driven country by 2022.

Adding up to this, A Kapoor cited, “Vedang’s key deliverable is Network Planning, Optimization & Benchmarking. Considering the huge volume of existing sites which will be upgraded to 5G technologies, we see a huge business potential with all operators and equipment manufacturers. We will join in the 5G revolution to ensure that operators and OEMs roll out a good quality network which can deliver as per customer expectations.”

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Jyoti Gazmer

A Mass Comm. graduate believes strongly in the power of words. A book lover who dreams to own a library some day. An introvert but will become your closest friend if you share mutual feelings about COFFEE. I prefer having more puppies over humans.