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Excited for 5G? You may have to wait a bit longer for the ‘real’ thing, says telcos body chief

S.P. Kochhar, director general of Cellular Operators Association of India, says it doesn’t ‘make sense’ to have standalone 5G at the start, and discusses challenges around rollout.

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New Delhi: Thirteen Indian cities are gearing up for the rollout of 5G technology. But Indian consumers may have to wait some more to experience “real” 5G, according to Dr S.P. Kochhar, Director General of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), a telecom industry body.

In an interview with ThePrint Friday, Kochhar explained that rather than standalone (SA) 5G, which refers to network on core 5G equipment, Indian consumers will first get 5G services that run on 4G telecom infrastructure, also known as non-standalone (NSA) 5G. 

This, Kochhar suggested, was a prudent approach.

“If I were in their [telecom companies’] place, I would start with non-standalone,” Kochhar said. 5G network, he added, should be non-standalone for general consumers. 

“Why should I spend money [providing 5G service] for non-existent applications? What I expect is enterprises within their premises will have standalone 5G for their use. But when they interface with outside 5G, it will be non-standalone,” Kochhar said.

This essentially means that a company’s private network will have to connect to the publicly available 5G network outside even if the company is trying to communicate, for instance, with one of its branches in another location.

Asked if Vodafone-Idea (Vi) is falling behind Jio and Airtel — that have announced 5G rollout plans for October — Kochhar said all the three telcos could launch some version of 5G during the India Mobile Congress (IMC) 2022 which is expected to be inaugurated by PM Modi.

“All three of them are going to roll out on the same day…5G services from all three will be available on the same day,” Kochhar said.

The COAI chief further said that the telecom industry is expecting “some announcements to be made around IMC [India Mobile Congress]” which is set to begin on 1 October.

In conversation with ThePrint, Kochhar also offered insights on why he thinks 5G is not a “panacea for everything” and touched upon some politically sensitive issues around the technology.

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‘Makes no sense to have SA 5G from the start’

Giving the example of other countries that did not begin by providing 5G services only via a standalone network, Kochhar said it made “no sense” to have standalone 5G right from the start.

According to him, having a non-standalone network will allow 5G consumers to “get the same speeds”. 

Speed, he added, is “dependent on the radio” (a component of the telecom network), and the “technology is the same” whether standalone or not. 

Explaining a drawback of NSA 5G, Kochhar said: “The exploitation of features like network slicing and edge computing are a little restricted in non-standalone but are fully available in standalone.”

Network slicing allows a telco to set up separate 5G networks for each of its enterprise clients using the same infrastructure, while edge computing is when end user devices are capable of computing and operating on their own without a central server processing and sending data to the user device. 

Standalone 5G allows more computing at the edge of a network because it has enough capacity to allow “one million devices per square kilometre” to connect to it directly, unlike 4G.

“If an enterprise has a requirement of only standalone, they want to do full fledged manipulation of these features, then they will be given the standalone features. It depends on the capex they want to invest in,” Kochhar said.

Challenges in setting up 5G

Underlining that 5G, too, has problems and is not a “panacea for everything”, Kochhar said that in urban areas, 5G will work on frequencies that cannot penetrate walls as effectively as today’s 4G frequency.

Smaller equipment like picocell and femtocell (low-power cellular base stations) need to be set up to ensure coverage inside buildings, or the 5G service needs to be integrated with a router compatible with the latest version of WiFi standard (WiFi 6), Kochhar said, adding, “Somebody has to pay for this equipment… If telco pays that will affect the tariff.”

In a blog in July this year, Hannes Ekström, Head of Strategy, Business Area Networks at Ericsson, had said that “industry digitalization is what is going to pave the way for new revenue streams for service providers”. 

But industry digitalization takes time and can happen only when businesses have identified valid applications and use cases to assess whether it would make sense for them to pay for a 5G network.

How much telcos should pay to lay underground optical fibre cables is another issue confronting the Indian telecom industry ahead of the 5G rollout.

According to Kochhar, only 35 per cent of mobile towers in the country are connected by optical fibre cables — a faster way to transmit data than copper cables or airwaves.

He added that 5G networks are designed to aggregate much more data from user devices than 4G, partly because of the spectrum they use, which is why telcos need the fastest method to transmit data to avoid congestion that diminishes service quality.

Telcos, in order to secure approvals from relevant local authorities to lay underground optical fibre cables, have to pay a fee charged under the “Right of Way” rules.

“There were a lot of disconnects between the states and the Centre. The Centre had given clear-cut guidelines about Right of Way charges, Right of Way rules, which are not being followed by the states and even if the states are following it, their local municipalities will not follow it,” Kochhar claimed.

Citing the examples of Mumbai and Pune, he added that some states or municipal corporations are charging “exorbitant restoration charges” to allow telcos to lay the underground optical fibre cables.

“In Mumbai and Pune, restoration charges are more than Rs 1 crore per km. The same needs to be rationalised,” he said.

Restoration charges are costs incurred from damage to a property when setting up telecom infrastructure.

Potential political potholes

Kochhar believes deploying 5G can turn into a politically sensitive issue.

For example, India’s telcos don’t provide the typical data speeds for 4G pan India. “Some places it does, some places it doesn’t. The reason is not because of technology,” he added.

“The problem is that Indian laws don’t permit us to transmit at the levels which are permitted by WHO [World Health Organisation].”

Transmission levels, in this case, refer to the power output of a tower. In India, the permissible power output level is 1/10, which is in accordance with global standards.

On raising the permissible power level from a signal tower, Kochhar told ThePrint: “We have been asking the government to review it. It is a politically sensitive situation.”

Explaining this further, with a reference to concerns about the possible impact of radiation from cell towers, he said: “Just imagine a headline saying the government doesn’t care about the health of citizens, when everybody knows, the educated people know, it won’t make a difference. So for political ends, it can be misused.”

 (Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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