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5G – Accelerating the era of digital convergence in India by overcoming implementation challenges

India is at the cusp of an epic technological revolution with the ongoing rollout of 5G services. Globally, the number of 5G connections are estimated to cross 4 billion, representing 35 percent of total connections, and 5G mobile subscriptions are expected to grow at a CAGR of over 50 percent. The India story is even more thrilling, as by the end of 2030, the country is expected to have 611.97 million 5G connections. The delay in the implementation of 5G has given various players, including OEMs, telecom service providers (TSPs), and the infrastructure providers, among others, ample time to manage financial readiness and navigate regulatory blockages. Consequently, this time has been used to strengthen the ecosystem and address any loopholes in it.

A year into the 5G rollout, its potential to transform India into a strong digital economy can hardly be overstated. While two telecom giants now cover nearly 10,000 cities and towns, and plan to have pan-India coverage by the end of March 2024, certain level of support is needed to overcome challenges. Problems like high spectrum reserve prices and payment terms and gaps in digital infrastructure deployment that could hamper the success of 5G need attention. In this scenario, regulatory support from the government to various stakeholders in the ecosystem is essential.

Overcoming challenges to 5G implementation
At the outset, decreasing taxation and government levies could help to financially strengthen the sector. Policy reforms aiming at coordination of 5G, further liberalization of active sharing of components, availability of high-capacity backhaul, and a better rollout of broadband for all, should also be a priority.

A clear policy framework could enable OEMs to invest in the future roadmaps for 5G products and stay focused on 3GPP (global standard) or 5Gi (India-specific) standards across each band, use case, and geographic circle. Take the Draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022, for instance. The bill needs to see the light of the day at the earliest. Drafted after deliberations with experts and incorporating global best practices, the bill considers the ongoing technological advancements in India, and has the potential to enhance the initiative of the government for ease of doing business.

The role of infrastructure providers needs to evolve in accordance with the future needs of 5G. This includes aspects, such as lit fiber capacity and optical transport bandwidth, number of towers, 5G repeaters, edge sites, number of small cells, and distributed antenna systems (DAS) for in building and outdoor solutions. They also need to be nimble to adapt to providing dynamic business models in rural and urban setups and drive collaborations to enable last-mile access. Infrastructure sharing is at the core for widespread 5G adoption in India. Best practices on infra sharing from their global counterparts can point infrastructure players in India in the right direction of leveraging multiple DAS ownership models. This could provide a fresh perspective to business models and alleviate pressure on TSPs and OEMs. To enable smooth implementation by TSPs the ambitious provisions under the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018, must also be speeded up.

The roadmap on edge data centers will also be crucial to gauge as to how TSPs forge relationships with cloud hyper-scalers, infrastructure players, and other stakeholders. There also needs to be a proper incentive structure for TSPs to engage in the Wi-Fi-led models.

As Asia-Pacific is likely to emerge as the epicenter of growth in the upcoming decade, a clear policy path in terms of technology, investments, and business operations will only streamline 5G implementation and adoption to the last mile. Active collaboration among all stakeholders is pertinent. Finally, for monetizing 5G, manufacturers may require partners to develop new-age solutions, and secure best return on investments. Mobile companies should also leverage AI and other technologies to ensure dynamic pricing of models and reduced vendor dependency.

Shaping a strong future with 5G
5G in India could shape new realities for various players in the ecosystem. But this would be possible only if there is a swift and progressive intervention and investment from all stakeholders. The NDCP, 2018, now needs to evolve into a 5G-specific agenda for each stakeholder to drive meaningful progress in this journey of unfolding digital convergence. The plan to set up a digital communication readiness index (DCRI) for mapping and tracking the states’ performance on digital initiatives under the department of telecommunications (DoT), could be instrumental in expediting 5G implementation.

To unfold an era of digital convergence in India through 5G, a strong foundation can be built through capacity, reliability, latency, bandwidth, and efficiency. Collaboration between stakeholders in areas, such as end-to-end infrastructure and service automation, virtualized networks, multi-access edge computing, etc., would also prove beneficial. With availability of affordable devices and creation of industry-relevant use cases, the 5G ecosystem stands to thrive and take the nation into its better future.

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