By Somnath Mahalanabis, Director, Business Solutions (APAC & ME), TEOCO
Business World India

The fifth generation (5G) of cellular networks enables faster connectivity speeds, ultra-low latency, and greater bandwidth. This latest communication technology – now gaining more and more relevancy across the world – delivers new capabilities that will create opportunities for individuals, businesses, and societies. Three years since the world witnessed the launch of the first 5G network, India is reaching a significant milestone on its digital transformation journey with its own major upgrade to its existing telecom networks. In fact, 5G is set to have a hugely beneficial impact for India, potentially giving rise to a multitude of applications with immense technological, economic and social impetus: according to recent estimates, it will enable Indian mobile providers to generate USD 17 billion in incremental revenue from enterprises by 2030. Given India’s reliance on mobile connectivity, it is no surprise that it ranks as one of the highest consumers of mobile data globally: 5G will support further growth in data consumption as more services with increasingly high-quality standards will be accessed through mobile connections.

As a result of its multi-band auction, India’s mobile operators have access to plenty of spectrum. Access to capacity in the 1–7 GHz range is essential for 5G to reach scale. This is because it helps to drive innovation in sectors including healthcare, education, manufacturing, and public administration, including smart cities. Unleashing these bands can help start a new wave of economic growth and generate new revenue streams in the enterprise market.

Given that spectrum is a limited resource, network operators will also have the option to refarm and reallocate some of their existing mid-band spectrum (such as the 1800 MHz) that, at present, is primarily being used for 2G/3G services and assign it to 5G. With the possible gradual phasing out of 3G networks, operators worldwide can make use of the 3G sunset in order to stay ahead of the rising demand for spectrum by repurposing their existing infrastructure to increase capacity elsewhere in their networks. Many operators have already completed the process of shutting down their 3G networks, having reorganised spectrum usage for their 4G technology.

5G: Unlocking Enterprise Opportunities in India 

India is on the threshold of the 5G era. On the enterprise side, 5G adoption is anticipated to grow rapidly, building on the firm foundations that have already been laid by network operators and other mobile ecosystem players like the handset manufacturers. To date, operators have conducted numerous trials in the area of 5G network deployment, and as a result, have now outlined plans to scale-up coverage across the region in the immediate future.

The operators that are committed to network deployment and application development will be key in ensuring 5G scales in India. August 2022 saw an announcement from Reliance Jio detailing its intention to invest USD 25 billion in the roll-out of a national network by the end of 2023. Additionally, Bharti Airtel has finalised its 5G roll-out strategy for the top 5000 cities in the country with ambitions to achieve nationwide coverage by March 2024.

For enterprises in particular, the transition to 5G will unlock new use cases and revenue streams. Many enterprise leaders from a range of industry verticals now view 5G as a key enabler of their enterprise digital transformation processes: a recent survey reveals that nearly a third of the companies asked ranked 5G as the most important technology to support their digital strategy over the next two years. It’s easy to see why. Ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC), Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC) and Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) are all headline services that underpin support for various verticals, from manufacturing, to logistics, automotive, retail, public services, and energy. Meanwhile India’s services sector, particularly in the areas of healthcare and education, is also expected to benefit from 5G, driven by smart city and smart government applications.

The Significance of India’s 5G auction

Due to the multi-band auction that occurred in August 2022, a marked increase in 5G penetration across India looks to be on the horizon. Incumbent operators including Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea secured core 5G spectrum in the 700 MHz, 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz bands, while new entrant Adani Group acquired some 26 GHz spectrum in certain parts of the country. Overall, the auction generated USD 19 billion.

Operator / Enterprise Spectrum (MHz) Spend Key Frequency Bands
Reliance Jio 24,740 USD 11.15 Billion 700 MHz, 800 MHz, & 26 GHz in all circles
Bharti Airtel 19,867 USD 5.5 Billion 3,300 MHz and 26 GHz – key focus
Vodafone Idea 6,228 USD 2.3 Billion 3,300 MHz and 26 GHz – key focus
Adani Group 400 USD 26.84 Million 26 GHz

The wider significance of the 5G spectrum auction is that with different bands comes different capabilities: the low band (less than 1GHz) has greater coverage but lower speeds and overall inherent capacity, the mid band (1GHz–6GHz) offers a balance of both, and the high band (24GHz–40GHz) offers higher speeds and capacity potential but a smaller coverage radius. Network operators will exploit all three bands in their entirety to address the market with greater geographical and segmental reach while maintaining the best possible QoS (Quality of Services) across different types of 5G applications For instance, low-band can be used in the energy industry to communicate with remote mining operations and wind farms, and it allows networks to reach deeper in-buildings and cover wider areas with IoT. When it comes to the mid-band, business parks, educational campuses, and smart cities will rely on the frequencies it offers to provide continuous service to IoT devices, cameras, and end users. Meanwhile, high-band (or mmWave) operates at 24GHz and beyond offering the fastest speeds across short distances which is ideal for data intensive applications such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR).

Spectrum Refarming for 5G 

Refarming is the process through which bandwidth usage is reorganized and optimised, typically to improve service quality and to make space for new technologies. As 5G spectrum has only recently been assigned in the Indian market, operators in the region will have to explore their options when it comes to refarming their existing licensed allocations for 5G deployments.

Indian operators are aware of the fact that the roll out of 5G in the low and middle bands overlaps with existing LTE and 3G deployments. This opens an opportunity for them to re-organise their existing spectrum to benefit from a most cost-effective repurposing of the currently deployed infrastructure in the field of 5G applications. 5G band specifications have been standardised by the global standardisation body 3GPP for a while now. This has allowed Indian operators ample time to assess their options. Meanwhile, an element of uncertainty lay in regulator’s (TRAI’s) decision to put up the exact frequencies and timing for the auction: as viability of business cases relate to an operator’s ability to operate services at specific frequency bands, aspects of those business plans may have to be revisited in the wake of the auction’s outcome. In general terms, an overlap with 3G bands has been strategically resolved by decommissioning the technology, thereby freeing up its allocated spectrum. With every other generation still in use, refarming may become a necessity.

Through the auction, Indian operators have also secured spectrum in the higher frequency bands. This means going into uncharted territory for commercial cellular networks in India as they will operate in an extremely sensitive environment for those frequency ranges. The main challenge operators will face will essentially arise from the fundamental propagation characteristics at those frequency ranges. Nevertheless, in an Indian context, 5G-specific applications relying on these higher bands will open immense growth potential for the country in terms of supporting unique 5G use-cases, ranging from proactive disaster management through remote sensing to high-speed transportation management, mass rolling out of tele-medicine for rural India and production automaton in industrial plants across the length and breadth of the country, to mention a few.

While these bands don’t conflict with pre-existing mobile technologies, their effective usage in providing network coverage requires a much higher antenna density, leading to new sites, more cells and more antenna infrastructure investment. As these frequencies are best suited to the delivery of ultrahigh-capacity services, operators will have to decide how to best address the need and procurement of new sites. But one thing is certain, once a new site location is acquired, this provides the operator with the option to re-assess if and how to deploy 5G cell-site equipment at that new location, when coexisting with the erstwhile technologies (2G, 3G, 4G) in the vicinity requiring re-defining of the frequency usage in that area through additional rounds of refarming.

India’s 5G Future

5G represents a key business transformational opportunity for many enterprises in the Indian market. Network operators across the country play a pivotal role in making 5G available to those enterprises, and as a result, enable those transformations to take place. At the same time, 5G has the ability to support new and innovative digital services underpinning smart cities, transforming the way communities interact with government and public services. This explains the high expectations that the Indian government places in 5G today given its potential to transform the economy and create a truly digital society.

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