While the technology upgrade will open up a lot of avenues, and has the potential of disrupting the modus operandi of a lot of sectors, issues relating to spectrum, its pricing, low fiber density, and leveraged balance sheets of telcos act as key hurdles.
The telecom industry has witnessed periodical technological advancements, starting with voice-only 2G services to high data speed 4G services, with 5G now knocking on the doors. Compared to its international peers, India has always been a laggard in technology upgradation for 3G and 4G and the same is likely to be the case with 5G as well; however, the delay is expected to be shorter. High spectrum prices, spectrum availability, precarious balance sheets of some of the telecom operators, low fiber density, and expensive equipment are key deterrents in early 5G adoption in India. Given this conundrum, it is important to note that 5G would require large CapEx investments.
The upgradation to 5G technology will be a compelling proposition with benefits like lower latency, higher capacity and increased bandwidth, aiding in an efficient and smart-connected world. It is slated to transform a lot of spheres of our lives with an array of applications and use-cases. The key benefits of 5G in the healthcare segment include real time connection between doctors and patients, remote surgery, and wearable devices that could send automatic alerts; in the retail segment, 5G can be used to manage inventory, and in future there could be a possibility of automatic stores and real-time monitoring of the farms in agriculture, leading to precision identification of areas, which require water, pesticides, etc. Likewise, in manufacturing, 5G can help minimize downtimes, improve precision, and can also enable remote object monitoring, robots, and communication between devices. The logistics and shipping industry would look at greater communication among vehicles, fleet monitoring, and navigation. This apart, high-definition live streaming, augmented reality, and virtual reality, will get a big boost from 5G speeds. Additionally, smart cities can use 5G to study traffic data and implement smart security.
While these are interesting applications, India has its own set of challenges in implementation. To start with, spectrum affordability and availability is a major concern. The International Telecommunication Union prescribed the minimum requirement of 100 MHz in the 3.3–3.6 GHz band, while in the last auctions, DoT had put 100 MHz and 175 MHz spectrum in similar bands for auction with three private players in the fray.
Further, there remains a need to introduce mmWave spectrum as well (around 30 GHz band). This apart, the pricing of the spectrum was also on the higher side, as claimed by the market participants, which stopped them from bidding for this spectrum in the last auctions. This apart, the fiber penetration in the country also remains low with around 30 percent of the towers fiberized. With 5G, networks need to be denser, thereby requiring increased fiber footprint, which is extremely capital-intensive and would require heavy investment.
5G is expected to provide opportunities for operators to charge a premium for their services and drive better customer experience, eventually bolstering the average revenue per user (ARPU).
However, the ability of the Indian consumer to pay that premium remains to be seen, given the very low tariffs prevalent in the country. Further, the equipment involved in 5G network is expensive as of now, which increases the CapEx cost for the operator as well as the subscriber. These issues get compounded when seen in the light of the leveraged balance sheets of the telecom service providers, although 5G trials have begun with a validity of six months, in which the operators are participating.
Regulatory support from the government providing the right ecosystem for research and development, regulatory framework for spectrum, solid local manufacturing for 5G equipment driven by the Rs. 12,195-crore product-linked incentive scheme, and an enthusiastic ecosystem of devices and applications would be key to technology implementation.