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Explained | Why are telcos unhappy with the government decision to set aside 5G airwaves for private enterprises?

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The story so far: On Wednesday, the Union Cabinet approved auction of 5G spectrum bands, and said it has reserved a portion of airwaves for captive private networks, a proposal opposed by telecom service providers. The auction of over 72 GHz of airwaves is set to be held by the end of July.

What set the ball rolling for 5G technology in India?

The world’s second-largest telecom market is one of the few major countries without 5G service. The Union government’s delay in auctioning off spectrum bands is a result of its rounds of consultations with various stakeholders to decide on bands that can be sold, block sizes, and the reserve price. The telecom service providers are ready to commercially roll out 5G to customers. In January, Reliance Jio said it completed next generation network coverage planning for nearly 1,000 cities in the country. A year ago, Airtel demonstrated 5G over a live commercial network in Hyderabad. Vodafone, before its merger with Idea, in 2017 said it had “upgraded entire radio network to all-IP technology, ready even for 5G”.

What are captive private networks and why do they need spectrum bands?

Private wireless networks are cellular networks built specifically for individual enterprises. These networks are often deployed at a single unit, for example a factory. They can also be used in a wide-area setting, for instance to monitor a mine in real-time. Airports and ports can also have their own private 5G cellular network to process imaging data coming from surveillance cameras to manage the facility. Several enterprises around the world are working on setting up private 5G networks as they offer reliable, fast, and secure wireless communication.

According to an Economist Impact survey of 216 technology executives in Germany, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S., over half said they plan to deploy a private 5G network within six-24 months. That is on top of nearly 30% executives who have already deployed or are in the process of deploying private 5G networks in their organisations. The key reason driving this adoption is the need for greater data privacy and security. Unlike unlicensed Wi-Fi service available at several private places, licensed spectrum bands offer greater data privacy, security and faster connection speeds.

How does Industry 4.0 relate to 5G?

Cellular technology has come a long way in the last four decades. Each generation has added a layer of sophistication over another starting with voice. Over the years, three generations of cellular airwaves enabled users to text, use Internet and view live-streaming video all at the same time.

Unlike its predecessors, the latest wireless iteration opens a new paradigm in cellular connectivity. That’s because the true benefits of 5G largely apply to industrial enterprises than individual users. Think about industrial AI-enabled robots on shop floors and warehouses, autonomous vehicles on the road, and mixed-reality headsets with advanced mobile applications that train workers. Each of these scenarios require high-speed computing using real-time data at low latency. This is at the core of the fourth industrial revolution where devices talk to each other to perform various tasks.

Big tech firms like Google have been seeking direct allocation of spectrum to use in machine learning applications, connected devices and general AI advancement.

How does the government plan to set aside spectrum for private network operators?

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has said that private firms can set up a 5G network by either getting a slice of public network from a licensed telecom company, establishing an isolated on premises network from the telecom service provider’s spectrum, or obtaining spectrum directly from the Department of Telecom or by sub-leasing it from telcos.

The notice inviting the offer also states that spectrum auction to private enterprises will follow after a demand study and based on TRAI’s recommendation on pricing and modalities of block allocations. The telecom regulator expects its recommendations to result in increased sharing of network resources.

Is it a setback for telcos?

The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) is of the firm view that “there is no justification whatsoever for allocating spectrum to industry verticals for operating private captive networks.” The association wrote to the Telecom Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw even before the Union Cabinet approved its 5G auction decision, requesting him to address the critical issue of private captive networks. It said that there will be no business case for 5G rollout in such a scenario.

Explained | Why are telecom companies upset with TRAI despite its proposal to cut spectrum prices by 40%?

This stems from their concern that 5G technology has more industry use case than for individual consumers. So, telcos worry that providing industries 5G spectrum allocation to set up private networks will diminish their own revenue from the next generation of cellular services.



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