India started its mobile journey in 1994, a few years behind the world. But we soon caught up with the world, and became one of the largest markets for 2G mobile services with over 500 million users by 2010. Thereafter, we skipped the 3G altogether and got into 4G, a great success story – we did a fantastic job in supporting the Indian economy – be it fishermen, farmers, retail trade, e-commerce, education, and the list goes on and on. 4G connected the masses with not only voice, but also video and internet. And we have also taken baby steps in manufacturing, R&D, and being a part of the global standardization movement.
While India moves forward on being Atamnirbhar in 4G, the world has already moved to 5G. 5G, the next generation of mobile wireless technology that provides ultra-high-speed, always-on, low-latency, internet connections supporting a multitude of applications from artificial intelligence and self-driving cars to telemedicine and virtual/augmented reality to as yet undreamt technologies, all the things we hope will make our lives smarter, easier, safer, and healthier.
5G will also help keep up with the explosion of connected gadgets, streaming video, and industrial robots. The promise of 5G is that it will bring speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second, not only to your phone but also to a multitude of devices, gadgets, and vehicles around you. That is 1000 times faster than the typical 4G speeds on today’s mobile phones, and 100 times faster than standard fiber-to-home broadband service – fast enough to download a 4K high-definition movie in a few seconds, or to stream several videos at the same time.
5G has been a hot topic of discussion in India for the last 5 years. The government set up a high-profile high-level forum (HLF) in 2017 to put India on the 5G world map by 2020.
However, 4 years down the line, we are still in discussions and trials, and thinking about the reserved price and awaiting the 5G spectrum auction while the world has moved on and more than 150 operators have launched commercial 5G services in 61 countries.
The telecom industry believes that 5G should be a national priority; a robust, scalable, and intelligent 5G infrastructure, capable of handling massive traffic growth, is an urgent necessity. The transition to 5G is critical to support India’s industrial development, and making India Atamnirbhar.
However, all these dreams are waiting for the government to remove the reserve price bar on the spectrum – which has so far been a clear 5G killer. Licensing policy for local area and captive 5G licensing is also awaited.
On the positive side, for the first time ever, India submitted its own variation of the 3GPP 5G technology called LMLC (low-mobility large-cell) – primarily to support 5G in rural and suburban areas at a lower cost, and successfully got it endorsed by the ITU.
While India still debates the 5G spectrum logjam, the world has already started working on the next generation of mobile technology – dubbed 6G – where the focus is expected to be on tackling societal challenges, such as sustainable economic growth, pandemics, and climate change.
One candidate for 6G, which is being talked about globally, is the Internet of Senses, a fusion of the physical, digital, and non-physical worlds; in effect, moving user engagement away from mobile phones and into a multi-sensory experience, aided by AR and VR.
ITU has already started working on future technology trends toward 6G – which is expected to be rolled out around 2030s – must be user oriented – as the users transform their ways of working, staying safe, and growing in these uncertain challenging times of pandemic and climate change. ITU-APT Foundation of India has already submitted its 6G vision to the ITU, and is actively participating in the global discussions on 6G.
The question is whether India will drive the 6G standardization, and be a part of the global 6G ecosystem. A success in India’s participation in 6G would call for massive investments in research and development and leveraging the strengths of India’s large market size and growing economic power. The current restrictive spectrum regime for R&D in India also needs a complete review.