India Makes Its Maiden Entry Into 5G Standards, Pisses Off Big Telecoms

For the last three years, Kiran Kumar Kuchi has been travelling to the global telecoms standards meetings with resolute regularity. A trip every month. To the high-stakes 5G standards being drafted during the time, Kuchi and his colleagues from the Indian Institutes of Technology wanted to add a typically Indian requirement. But the stiff negotiations at the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), driven by big telecoms gear makers, made sure India was stifled. It had no telecoms company, and hence no seat at the table. No voice.

Meeting after meeting, India was outvoted. Blocked, or pushed around from one working group to another. Until February 2018, when, after some backroom drama at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Geneva, India finally opened its account. By adding a feature to the 5G standards. The full set of those standards—mandatory and optional—will roll out later this year.

A professor at IIT Hyderabad, Kuchi and his team have devised a new modification to the radio signal—which carries information in telecommunications—that can be configured for two important outcomes. To improve the battery life of a mobile phone and to enhance the signal transmission range of a base station, from the current last mile distance of 1.7 km to up to 12 km. The use case that India wants to apply this technology for is called Large Cell Low Mobility (LMLC)—wider coverage, at low speeds. Its specs are currently being finalized at the ITU—the UN agency overseeing development of the “IMT 2020” global standard for 5G—as you read this.

This is the first time ever that India can boast of owning an intellectual property (IP) in telecoms standards. This is also the first time that India has a chance to influence products for 5G networks. But it may not be the last time. And that has the big equipment makers worried. In the negotiation chambers of 3GPP, the essential technical features of Kuchi’s invention were diluted, from 12 km to 8 km, and finally to 6 km at the Toronto meeting in June 2018.

Much against the wishes of the Indian academics, India’s proposal was also negotiated down to be included in the optional list of the 5G standards. That means the rest of the world may choose to never implement it. India though has chosen to make it mandatory even as telecoms vendors have tried reasoning against it with the Department of Telecommunication (DoT). Their reaction isn’t surprising; toeing an Indian IP into their future products is not what big equipment makers are used to.

In most technologies, research happens first, standards are developed later. In telecoms, research gets encoded into standards first, products and solutions are developed later. Put simply, telecoms standards define what direction future technologies will take. Participating in and influencing 5G standards, therefore, has become a massive techno-political exercise.

The traditional telecoms patent holders—Qualcomm, Ericsson, and Nokia—expect to earn nearly $20 billion in annual licensing revenue from 5G handsets alone.

“Once you have some ownership of standard-essential patents, you can build base stations or commercial [radio frequency] modules. You can then commercialize them without any fear of being challenged by patent lawsuits,” says Kuchi. This is borne out of the protracted legal battle that Indian mobile phone makers Micromax Informatics and Intex have had with the Swedish equipment maker Ericsson in the last five years.

Kuchi has long-term plans on how to work his way up in the 3GPP so that future generations of mobile technologies have at least some India imprint. China, Korea and Japan have challenged the American and European hegemony in telecoms standards in 5G. This week in Geneva, along with South Africa and Zimbabwe, other developing countries are offering support to LMLC. It’s trophy time. It’s also a testing time.

Not writ in stone

When 5G standards were discussed, countries like China and Korea championed mobile broadband at 200+km/hour speed, says Abhay Karandikar, director of IIT Kanpur, who has campaigned for LMLC and telecoms standards for long. India’s contention was that such speeds are not achieved here even in urban areas, leave alone rural.

“We want solutions that work in rural India where mobility is low. Indian villages are spread out, with clusters of houses and fields in between. We need base stations which can cover a large area,” says Karandikar. The economics behind it is moot: Each base station requires optical fibre connectivity to the telecom tower and providing that in the villages is unviable for telecom carriers. Forget the cost of fibre, the labor-intensive digging of lines and looping the wires back to the central office makes it unfeasible even in suburban India.

Apart from this, the technology itself gets inefficient. “When a solution works at 300km/hour, it will also work at 10km/hour. But when it is optimized for high speed and is made to work at low speed, the energy efficiency suffers,” says Karandikar. In the West, base stations are designed with 24X7 electricity supply in mind. But India doesn’t have a continuous power supply in most places.

When Kuchi started his work on creating a new waveform—a signal processing algorithm—in 2008, he wanted to design it ground-up for rural needs. With the new modification, one can double the output power of a device without any extra hardware. Be it a phone, a base station, or any other radio equipment. This means, using LMLC, a single base station could serve 7-10 villages.

During 3GPP meetings, a few hardware manufacturers, including Qualcomm, tested the waveform extensively. (3GPP is a collaboration of seven national telecoms standard development organizations that draw up complete mobile system specifications.) “The vendors actually demonstrated that the power amplifier [in devices] doubled its power. I was pleasantly surprised,” says Kuchi. “We didn’t have the capability to test it on hardware in India; we only did computer simulations. But it worked exactly as we had anticipated.”

Yet, the pushback from the companies intensified.

In 2014, India set up its own standards body as a bulwark, called Telecommunications Standards Development Society, India (TSDSI). The DoT put its weight behind it as well when the equipment vendors bolted on to a new narrative—that they’d let it enter the standards if Kuchi and team made it mandatory only for India. Not for the rest of the world.

For now, the Western hegemons have won; LMLC is an optional feature. But India, through TSDSI, has filed a writ proposal. It’s a mouthful—”an interim submission for enhancements in 3GPP standards”—but more than anything, it means they’re not giving up.

TSDSI director general, Pamela Kumar, who has represented India in these discussions in the past year, says it’s a path that China and Korea have shown. Many features that these Asian countries have managed inserting in the 3GPP (remember, it’s been so far dominated by American and European companies) standards, have come about this way. Through a writ proposal.

“No vendor wants to develop solutions for India or such countries. But if it’s codified in the ITU, they’ll have to develop. Unlike 3GPP, ITU is a democratic institution where member nations [188 of them] have a voice,” Kumar says.

Missed bus no. 4G

For the longest time, the Indian government was fragmented in its opinion and intent on telecoms technologies. There’s hardly any local telecoms product company of global stature. It’s like the sector has collapsed under its own weightlessness.

If China is led by Huawei and ZTE, Korea by Samsung, the India team in the international forum is often a potpourri of academics, bureaucrats and, yes, executives from multinationals like Ericsson and Nokia.

“Indian companies are not a significant participant in computing or telecom technology global ecosystem; <0.2% at best. This is indeed a huge vulnerability for India,” says Arogyaswami J Paulraj, chairman of the DoT’s High-Level 5G India 2020 Forum, and professor emeritus at Stanford University.

This vulnerability hurt India in 4G. Because the energy consumption of 4G is high and since most telecom towers are run on diesel generators, the operational cost of 4G networks is higher. It also adds to the environmental pollution. This aspect, believes Karandikar, has not been fully understood by base station manufacturers.

In India, just as mobile phone became the primary phone, 4G became the primary broadband, even though it was not designed to be so. “In India, we need high throughput when we are not mobile but stationary. It [LMLC] could have been perfected in 4G itself but we were late to the game [of standards],” says Karandikar.

Threat to the cosy club

Better late than never. As the 5G standards window closes, India has managed a toehold. The global telecoms vendors have objected to India’s late proposal which is going to certainly dent their nicely laid out plans for 5G rollouts. (Samsung has the most detailed 5G plan for Tokyo Olympics 2020.) One, they will have to mildly redo their products to incorporate Kuchi’s technology. Two, they’d not want an Indian IP into their products for which they might have to pay royalty in future.

But they’ll come around to it because India continues to be the second largest telecoms market by user base: 1.1 billion and counting. In addition, inserting LMLC into the vendors’ product will require a mere software update; a minor chip insertion with no hardware change. Kuchi says it’d work with 4G/LTE as well as 5G gears. In any case, say telecoms experts, Ericsson and Nokia have incorporated many of their 4G technologies into 5G. “Politically they hold the ground but they haven’t made any groundbreaking contributions to 5G. The 4G principles continue into 5G,” says an academic who has worked in this field for over a decade.

Indian operators, including Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd, have expressed interest in LMLC. Product companies ought to come to the table, too. Companies like Tejas—one of India’s largest telecoms products company with FY18 revenues of Rs 740 crore ($104.6 million)—can’t even get a foot in the door otherwise. “Everyone else has already got economies of scale. But Indian companies can get into new things [read: LMLC and beyond],” says a senior technocrat who doesn’t want to be seen commenting on this.

Like a few other teams in other institutions, Kuchi is building a 5G testbed in Hyderabad. By year-end, he says, they’d start thinking about a commercial base station. It’ll require a lot of investment, but it’s possible, he asserts.

Many years ago, India’s Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT) in New Delhi, had a breakthrough when it built the world’s first automated telephone exchange. One that worked in the rugged, dusty Indian environment and brought down the cost from Rs 15,000 ($212) per line to Rs 1500 ($21). Soon after, in the late 1990s, C-DoT built a prototype of a wireless base station. The DoT never provided financial support to develop it further.

Decades later, DoT, which has been supportive of late, once again has the chance to influence the telecoms product space. There are hundreds of standard essentials patents, and even if you have five of them, professionals say, you can have skin in the game. This time, DoT mustn’t give the game away. ―The Ken

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