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Friday, July 9, 2010

Taking the first call on 5G

artical Picture Delays and endless deliberations in decision-making have actually helped the country buy latest telecom technology, and India is now leading the world in pursuing 4G and 5G networks.

We debated for 10 years after mobile telephony was introduced across the world whether it was appropriate for the poor Indian, and when it came in, it could not grow for another 10 years owing to high tariffs and inappropriate regulation and could not reach the bottom of the pyramid.

We debated 3G also for 10 years, and now when it is coming in, it is challenged by atotally new technology. Is India, unlike the past, acquiring more confidence to experiment with new technologies, having almost the largest number of mobile subscribers in the world?
The recent 3G and WiMax auction in the country has generated interest across the world, and questions are being asked about the future of Indian telecom after these auctions and the future of WiMax and the LTETDD technology — which has entered India ahead of other countries — and a possible 5G initiative in India. These are technical terms and I must explain the changes in simple terms, as I explain the game-changing implications of these moves.
1G technology, the basic mobiles, entered the world in early 1980s, followed by 2G, or GSM, mobiles. The argumentative Indian debated till 1995 whether we should get the elite technology of mobile phones for the poor Indian.

A few mobiles at the cost of a diamond pendant did enter India in 1995, but everything changed after the ‘pendant’ entered the base of the Indian population pyramid in 2004, courtesy low prices and tariff. Now it is entering rural India fast without subsidy implications.

The government planned teledensity of 15 and rural teledensity of 4% at a huge subsidy cost to the taxpayer, for 2010. We lagged behind targets like in all other sectors till 2004, but suddenly started treating targets with contempt and, today, we are +60% teledensity and 25% rural teledensity nation — far more than 100% teledensity for urban areas like in developed world — at a fourth of the subsidy cost for rural areas.
3G entered the world in early 2000, and almost turned many corporates bankrupt. We again debated for 10 years before letting the total personal communicator enter India. This telephone can give voice, data, pictures, broadband, maps, Google search, location, direction finder, mobile bank, TV, cloud computing — imagine a full-fledged computer in your palm — and what not.
But I now salute the argumentative Indian — that the technologies entered so late — when they had fully matured and the equipment became cheap, giving the mobile communicator market a chance to explode as the 2G market did post-2004, and enter the bottom of the pyramid.
That would be a function of tariffs. Can we get those dream tariffs after the sector spends Rs 3 lakh crore this year and in the next three years, and at the time of renewals, as recommended by the regulator.

After all, it only spent a little more than Rs 2.5 lakh crore in the 2G initiative in the last few years after introduction of mobiles, and the telecom sector has an annual turnover of Rs 1.6 lakh crore.

Nowhere has 3G initiative led to alarge increase in total turnovers or average revenue per user (Arpus). How much the Indian consumer can spend vis-à-vis his per-capita income on this experience and how much the Indian companies can sustain the huge current expenditure without sizeable incremental revenues would determine the future of the sector.
The WiMax and 4G story in India today is totally different. WiMax standards for computers and not for telephones — with convergence, they are now getting into telephones also — have been frozen by ITU recently. The process is going on for 4G, mainly LTE-FD though, while RIL and Qualcomm are talking of LTE-TDD for India, a more recent technology.

Tikona, another operator, has also spoken of a likely shift. So, the argumentative Indian is changing in a big way, after government has separated licence from spectrum, and he is experimenting with new technologies ahead of time with the confidence of being a +600 million subscriber network and people are now asking questions about 5G, in the nascent stages of development around the world, entering India.
Back in 2003, the world chief of a major handset company, on way to Shanghai, did not want to see me in Delhi — I was the Indian regulator then — and rightly so, as we were 10 years behind, a thirdworld country with Hindu rate of growth in telecom too, primarily dependent on the government incumbent and government subsidies, hardly selling any phones — all the diamond pendant-like priced phones were smuggled from Singapore. It is a different matter; the group has many factories in India now, selling the same pendant for the price of artificial jewellery.
Within the last five years, as a nation, we now have the confidence to undertake R&D, test and launch new technologies in the telecom sector, and we should be grateful to our competing telecom operators to have taken major risks in our governance regimes and establishing a huge market size — only second to China with much larger rate of growth — and credibility.

And now at 4G and 5G stage, we are ahead of the world in testing and competing for newer technologies.So what are these technologies? In layman terms, it is about the speed of communication. The lower speeds could only deliver voice and some words, while the higher speeds can deliver all that I wrote above for 3G, and 4G and 5G would deliver at exponentially-higher speeds, thus giving far better video streams, faster moving pictures and much more in a ubiquitous manner.

Imagine a speed of more than 1 Gbps in 5G in comparison to 1.2 kbps, almost a million times more, of 1G, the speeds of 9.6 kbps of 2G, 2 Mbps for 3G and 100 Mbps for 4G, and higher for 5G would deliver pictures almost akin to physical presence, changing all human activities to the mobile streams and all communication to video with sound. The quality would be 4,000 times better than what we see in our best laptop connection and broadband scheme today.
Perhaps there would be no need to leave the house or vehicle for education, banking, medical treatment, meetings, and movies, and so many other forms of human economic, educational or entertainment activity very shortly.

In the past, we waited hearing about these wonders happening in the West. The Indian entrepreneurs will now give us the experience of moving ahead of the world in achieving these technology advances. South Korea in Asia led the West, including the US, in fixed broadband. Will we lead the world in mobile broadband and in 4G and 5G technologies?

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