Science & Technology

India’s 5G fantasy: The future looks decidedly dim

The country is dithering over starting field trials while dreaming of securing patents in this revolutionary technology

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Tuesday 27 August 2019
Photo: Getty Images

There was something pathetic about Union Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s wishful thinking as he addressed the Indian Mobile Congress last month. He said his vision of 5G for the country was not just a rollout of services, but the creation of Indian intellectual property (IP) and patents in 5G technology.

This may be possible in a couple of decades, but right now we might as well be crying for the moon. While companies around the world, notably the Chinese, have secured thousands of patents in this revolutionary technology that will provide the platform for inventing a host of new products, technologies and services, Indian companies are yet to start field trials of 5G spectrum for which permission was granted just recently.

Equipment for these trials, needless to say, will be provided by foreign vendors.

Most people assume that 5G will provide faster speeds than 4G — which bypasses the hinterland and works only patchily in urban India — but that would be a gross simplification. 5G will empower the invention of thousands of new products, technologies and services, increase productivity and allow for new industries to emerge.

A global 5G network will unify mobile communication and connect people and devices to everything through the Internet of Things. Given that 3G and 4G patent holders have controlled the use of mobile technologies in the smartphone industry, those who own the intellectual property (IP), primarily the SEPs or the standard essential patents, will become the market leaders in a technology that will reshape the future.

Remember that companies here or anywhere will have to use SEPs when implementing standardised 5G technology. This means the clutch of companies that own these will rake in billions from licensing the SEPs.

India may be sending missions to the moon but in the area where technological prowess matters most the country is lost in a black hole. Not a single Indian telecom firm is in the list of 303 deployment of 5G technology worldwide.

This industry list has 20 operators in 294 locations. Worse, although the domestic firms (Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea) are expected to start their three-month long trial shortly, it is worth remembering that the industry is in dire straits with huge debts and has indicated that it would be in no position to bid for 5G spectrum.

Nor does India have the kind of resources that President Xi Jinping is investing in 5G apart from the sharp research effort on it. No wonder Chinese firms command the lion’s share of patents among the clutch of global firms that own IP in 5G. Its star performer Huawei, blacklisted by the Trump Administration, continues to surge ahead with revenues soaring by 23 per cent.

India has to decide if Huawei—with which the initial 5G sortie was made in a lab run—is a security threat or not.

Can India ever catch up? Field trials are just the starting point; it merely allows operators and equipment makers to prove that the network they have designed in a laboratory actually works in practice. Then there is the long haul to a commercial rollout.

As India obsesses about its technological expertise in a mythical past, the future is looking decidedly dim.

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated August 16-31, 2019)

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