Telcos, forget past and prepare to embrace 5G

While the telecommunications companies are bracing for the forthcoming radio spectrum auction – recommendations for which have been released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) recently – it is time to clearly define their roles for the mobile future of India.

While voice and Short Message Service (SMS) dominated the world of telecom in India until a couple of years back, carriers are on the back foot now, trying to manage exponential growth in data demand due to increasing penetration of smartphones and over-the-top (OTT) services. In a country almost devoid of landline broadband, mobile broadband holds the key for increasing penetration across the country.

However, entangled in the much controversial debates on Net Neutrality and differential pricing, coupled with spectrum scarcity and possible high payouts as spectrum fees, the carriers are in an unenviable situation. However, there is a still a silver lining on the horizon.

First, the primary usage of networks for transporting voice and multimedia data will see a paradigm shift soon towards transporting smart bits (relatively smaller in quantity) from a large number of hyper connected devices (i.e. Internet of Things – IoT). The connectivity requirements can be localised or long-range, and relatively immobile. The transmitted data may be mission critical, used for monitoring and adjusting associated physical devices (also called Cyber Physical Systems) in real time and hence require reliability and lower latency.

Therefore, the Fifth Generation (5G) networks of the future are likely to have simplified layered architecture that can support ubiquity, wide range of applications including multimedia video on one end and Internet of Things on the other end.

Second, the walled garden of telcos has crumbled with the invention of OTT services. This trend is likely to continue. Telecom carriers should be cognizant of the fact that they are just one part of the ecosystem which will comprise infrastructure providers, application and content providers, hosting service providers and hence need to make their part of the network simple with reduced complexity and improved interoperability.

Third, the future 5G networks will be much simpler in design much like the eloquent TCP/IP protocols of the Internet that stood the test of time, and very much unlike the 2G and 3G networks with numerous interconnected elements of complex interfaces and protocols, known only to the carriers who have deployed them. This is likely to reduce the operational complexity of networks and, through it, the associated costs which have been burdening the carriers for quite some time. This also portends a future where there are many types of infrastructure and service providers of which the telcos are just one set of players.

So, it is time for both the Network Equipment Manufacturers and telcos to revisit some of the assumptions behind their extant network technology deployment strategies and keep an eye on the future landscape of network service provisioning.

5G on multiple frequencies

Fourth, the 5G networks will work seamlessly on multiple frequency bands catering to a variety of requirements, including short and long-haul access, and differing Quality of Service requirements. Network services will be provided over cellular, Wi-Fi, wired broadband and satellite networks with little lock-in to any specific type of network.

As we speak, alliances such as SIGFOX, Ingenu and LoRa are working on the use of unlicensed band for long-haul IoT usage. Both the network equipment and handsets will become spectrum agile, spotting frequency bands on the fly for use in opportunistic basis. Hence, it is time that the mobile carriers change their mind set from primary ownership of spectrum bands to sharing it in a “co-opetitive” manner for the benefit of the ecosystem as a whole.

Fifth, policy makers and regulators need to be aware of the potential and technical capabilities of 5G networks of tomorrow and prepare accordingly. Light touch regulation is here to stay. The traditional command-and-control approach to various aspects of telecom regulation, including licensing and spectrum management needs a paradigm change. Pluralistic licensing and flexible spectrum management approaches are the need of the hour.

Of course, one might argue that 5G networks are still in a nascent research phase and it will take time for their adoption. However, the technologies which enable all the above are already coming out of research labs and are expected to be standardised by 2017. In the US, AT&T has already unveiled its 5G roadmap, indicating deployment of a future network services such as video, virtual reality, and Internet of Things.

In India, Airtel has already started testing 4G+ technologies such as LTE-Advanced through which carrier aggregation across different bands can be deployed, thereby boosting spectral efficiencies. Though it may take another year or two for the ecosystem to catch up, it is time that telcos think about all the factors above and strategise accordingly, leaving the legacy behind and embrace what the future beholds.

The World Development Report 2016, released recently by the World Bank, recognises the transformational nature of digital technologies, especially that of mobile broadband. However, it also advocates policy reforms especially in emerging countries on liberalisation of spectrum management, including spectrum sharing and resale. Though significant strides have been made in this area recently in India, it is time to look beyond and leap frog!

(The  writer is Professor, IIIT-B. The article is partly based on the public lecture of Henning Schulzrinne, Levy Professor of Computer Science, Columbia University, US, held at IIIT-B)

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