5G rollout and key emerging trends in digital infrastructure industry
For the Indian telecommunications industry, 2022 was a significant year, with the services taking another generational leap with the launch of 5G services in the country. The digital infrastructure industry stood up to the challenge and commenced the task of densification of networks. The roll-out of 5G networks began in October 2022 and targets 200 cities and suburban regions by March 2023. As of January 1, 2023, there are approximately 7.43 lakh telecom towers, roughly 24.2 lakh base transceiver stations, and approximately 8.5 lakh BTS are fiberized across India.
To roll out 5G in India, small cells will be used to upgrade and expand the network, particularly in higher-frequency bands, with limited range, and cannot pass through obstacles and will be used to manage traffic on the network. Using existing street furniture for small cells can avoid the need for new towers and lead to cost-effective and rapid deployment. These small cells will require backhaul connectivity, which can be established through aerial fiber deployment, using street furniture. However, the deployment of small cells and aerial fiber on street furniture may be hindered by several issues, including identifying suitable street furniture, EB supply, scalability concerns, and local approval and safety issues.
India has approximately 3.5 million kilometers of OFC, and about 36 percent of towers are fiberized. It is necessary to explore and utilize the opportunities presented by next-generation networks like 5G and other pioneering network access technologies like 6G, Wi-Fi 7, and Satcom. As per NBM targets, by the end of 2024, 70 percent of towers will be fiberized. There is hence a big challenge to achieve, which will require the government to enhance the scope of IP-1s, permitting them to share active infrastructure.
The Government of India has played a pivotal role in ensuring a smooth 5G roll-out and a conducive environment for uptake with considerable investments, policies, and reforms.
Some of the government initiatives include:
The Indian government introduced a draft telecommunications bill in September 2022 that would replace existing telecommunications services, networks, and infrastructure laws. The aim of the bill is to establish a comprehensive and updated system for regulating telecommunications in the country. It expands the definitions of various terms, including telecommunication service, and introduces strict regulatory rules for both internet service providers and users.
The GatiShakti Sanchar portal was launched to accelerate approvals for fiber and tower installations, and can be used by industry players to apply for 5G services. This portal envisages bringing transparency, accountability, and responsiveness to all stakeholders while processing the application. It has further helped in ease of doing business as the application process for installation of digital infrastructure is being delayed due to inconsistency and uncertainty of policy and processes. It requires maintaining a fast-tracking application process to overcome the implementation challenges of right-of-way rules. This would provide a robust mechanism to achieve the broadband-to-all goal as envisaged in the National Digital Communication Policy 2018. The portal has been a game-changer and has brought down the average processing time of applications from more than 200 days to nearly 9 days.
The government plans to set up 100 labs in India for 5G technology development and collaboration among the private sector, academia, and the government.
The BharatNet project aims to provide broadband connectivity to approximately 260,000 gram panchayats, and is being implemented in phases to connect every village through optical fiber by 2025.
The DoT amended the right-of-way rules and launched the Indian Telegraph Right of Way – Amendment Rules, 2022, to facilitate faster 5G roll-out, clarify the term street furniture, and allow for bulk processing of applications.
The Ministry of Railways announced its revised right-of-way policy, which permitted private telecom companies to install towers on land owned by the ministry. It would also enable the users travelling by train to get a better experience. Railways’ 70 divisions will now also allow the installation of small cells and pole mounts in the station premises and offices. The move to allow licensing of railway land to private entities for the installation of telecom towers shall bring down costs and boost efficiency and telecom connectivity.
TRAI has acknowledged the important role of telecom and has recommended that telecom sites should be given access to electricity at industrial or utility tariffs.
The Authority has also released a consultation paper on infrastructure sharing, spectrum sharing, and spectrum leasing. DoT has completely supported this.
Key emerging trends. 5G subscription in India is estimated to reach 500 million subscribers, with a penetration rate of approximately 40 percent by 2027. Mobile data traffic in India will grow by a factor of four, from 2022 to 2027, and India will be amongst the highest mobile-data-consuming nations with a record 50 Gb of monthly average data use per subscriber by 2027, outpacing the US, China, and other developed countries.
5G will empower organizations to act on rich datasets in real time, with unprecedented visibility, insights, and control over assets, products, and services. 5G use cases are under development across the country. These will help government initiatives in digitization, growing industries through automation, and enhancing the consumer experience.
5G technology will allow for the deployment of new and innovative technologies, such as Internet of Things (IoT), which will allow for the interconnectedness of everyday devices and appliances, leading to a more efficient and smarter society.
Smart cities. Technologically developed cities will use various devices and sensors to collect information to efficiently manage assets, resources, and services to improve operations. Smart traffic monitoring and management systems, energy management, connected public transport, and air and water quality monitoring systems are some components that help to build a smart city. 5G-connected equipment will use seamless mobile network coverage, thus reducing the need for fixed wiring, and work in sync with other portable devices, such as drones and robots.
Drones. 5G-enabled autonomous inspection drones will have communication capabilities to coordinate the collected information quickly and relay important images, such as scans of critical infrastructure, accident sites to relevant authorities. They will be useful in border security, forest and wildlife conservation, traffic monitoring, crime control and illegal activity prevention, disaster management, and crowd control.
Travel and transport. Secure, seamless, and high-performing cellular technology will create a host of innovations for smarter airports, railways, shipping ports, connected vehicles, and smart logistics. 5G will allow operations to be smarter, more flexible, and more secure to handle changes in technology, demography, and economy. Automation and analytics will enable more efficient operations, while reducing operational costs.
Service robots. 5G-enabled service robots for hospitality industry can provide hotel check-in assistance, in-room delivery of food and luggage, restaurant service, etc.
Surveillance and traffic management. 5G CCTV security cameras will run wireless audio and video signals on the 5G Wi-Fi band, leading to higher video-analysis capabilities and processing using AI/ML. AI-embedded cameras with sensors will ensure traffic monitoring, prevention of speeding and dangerous driving, while regulating vehicle flow within an area. Key features, such as facial recognition, object/vehicle detection, and more, will deter people from indulging in anti-social or illegal activities, thereby increasing safety. Key personnel will be able to identify and receive real-time information related to accidents, and emergency calls will be received from intelligent sensors placed throughout the city.
Automated factories. In conventional manufacturing plants, processes are labor intensive, with several human interactions needed at key points. With the new network and multi-access edge computing (MEC) built in, the manufacturer will be able to operate using automated guided vehicles (AGVs), which can respond to obstacles in less than 10 milliseconds. Further, asset monitoring can be performed with digital twins and sensors, enabling maximum efficiency.
Location tracking via AR map. Maps will be designed to use AR (augmented reality) for navigation while walking. The rear camera of the phone will capture the current location and display directions based on its reading, rather than a 2D map. AI will identify visuals and the global positioning system (GPS) will provide positioning details.
Energy and utilities. 5G networks will enable the deployment of smart grid technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT) in the energy and utilities sector, allowing for more efficient and sustainable energy management.
Agriculture. 5G networks will enable precision farming, using drones, sensors, and other IoT devices to optimize crop yields, reduce waste, and improve sustainability.
Outlook. India has made significant progress in telecommunications with the roll-out of 5G networks. It is looking to participate in developing global 6G standards by forming the 6G Technology Innovation Group (TIG). The future growth of the telecom industry in India is expected to be driven by advances in 5G and 6G, which have the potential to improve communication and connectivity, increase efficiency, and drive economic growth. However, challenges, such as expanding optical fiber coverage and improving cybersecurity policies, must be addressed. With the right approach, the Indian digital infrastructure industry has the potential to establish strong recognition in the global market and play a key role in realizing the vision of a Digital India. Digital infrastructure development is crucial for the digital economy, and factors, such as digital availability, access, appetite, and abilities, should be considered.
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