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How indigenous is India’s 5G technology?


Play this FM interaction video from the beginning till 0:34. Then start the VO below

Last month, while interacting with students at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in the United States, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that the India’s is not imported, it is a domestic product. Sitharaman also said that the Indian government can offer the indigenous technology and infrastructure to other countries as well.

rollout in India

Back home, a few days before the finance minister’s US visit, the country’s Telecom Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw had announced that over 200 cities in India will get access to 5G within six months.

A mixed bag?

And Vaishnaw may be right. Telecom companies are working on a war footing to launch pan India services. But is India’s 5G fully indigenous? Maybe not. Both Jio and Airtel have already partnered with global gear makers for the smooth rollout. Reliance Jio has inked multi-year contracts with Ericsson and Nokia to get 5G network equipment.

Under the contracts, Nokia will supply equipment from its AirScale radio portfolio, including base stations, high-capacity 5G radio antennae, and remote radio heads, while Ericsson’s 5G Radio Access Network (RAN) products and solutions and E-band microwave mobile transport solutions will be deployed in the 5G network for Jio. Meanwhile, Airtel has signed 5G network agreements with Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung.

A telecom network has four parts — a radio access network, a core network, a transport network, and an interconnect network. While Jio said it will deploy a standalone 5G network, which needs a new core, Airtel is putting in place a non-standalone 5G network, leveraging the existing 4G infra. So at this point, India’s 5G infra is a mixed bag.

How far have we come?

Unlike 3G or 4G rollouts, telcos this time are not entirely depending on global vendors for equipment and instead developing their own 5G tech. For example, Jio will be using its own indigenously-built 5G core. Both Reliance and Airtel have also said they are indigenously developing the next-generation 5G stack. According to a Business Standard report, Reliance is building a 5G software stack with its own R&D team, along with its US subsidiary Radisys.

Emergence of platforms like O-RAN or Open-Radio Access Networks has helped Indian telcos to build their own 5G tech. For instance, Airtel has inked a partnership with TCS to build O-RAN-based radio, and an indigenous 5G stack. Tatas have acquired a stake in Tejas Networks, a developer and seller of networking products such as radio, which in turn has bought, Saankhya Labs, which is developing 5G software. TCS will act as a system integrator, putting the hardware and software parts together on an O-RAN platform. Airtel-Tata will likely be a win-win for both as Tatas will get to test proof of concept while Airtel will get indegenous tech.

When it comes to other home-grown telecom gear companies developing 5G tech, it is a tall order. The government brought in a PLI scheme for telecom equipment making last year. While the 31 companies, approved under the scheme, promised an investment of over Rs 3,000 crore over four years, these companies do not have any orders from operators for 5G equipment and the incentives under PLI are given only when the companies undertake production.

According to R K Bhatnagar, director general at Voice of Indian Communications Technology Enterprises, few companies that have made 5G radio design have no orders. Bhatnagar told Business Standard that domestic gear makers should concentrate on the private network market and the growing number of government contracts where the requirement for 5G equipment like radios is not so rigid or so large.

Let us hear more from N K Goyal, who represents telecom equipment manufacturers association in India, “Some companies successfully demonstrated indigenous technology which needs to be put up in trials,” says Prof N K Goyal, Chairman Emeritus, TEMA. Private operators gave orders to MNCs because of the urgency of 5G launch, he says.

Complete indigeneity in 5G infra and technology is still far-fetched for India. However, there is some progress on the tech front with 5G when compared with 3G or 4G.


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