Avoid fragmentation of 5G technology standards while bridging the digital divide

Economic Times, June 10, 2020

By Pradeep S Mehta

“.. it is important to support the TSDSI is its endeavour of innovation for bridging the digital divide. However, it is imperative that its technology is harmonised with global technology standards, else it runs the risk of doing more harm than good, with respect to 5G in India,” suggests Pradeep Mehta. Secretary General, CUTS International.

Telecommunications Standards Development Society, India (TSDSI) has developed an indigenous Radio Interface Technology (RIT), as an India specific technology enhancement, which increases the mobile signal coverage area of the Low-Mobility-Large-Cell (LMLC) technology. The technology has been sent to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for evaluation, to be adopted as a standard. Together, TSDSI-RIT and LMLC are believed to hold the potential to enable rapid and affordable deployment of 5G in rural, remote, and sparsely populated areas. Although the efforts of TSDSI are laudable, experts and telecom companies allege a lack of harmonisation between India’s proposed standards, with the ones which are being finalised by global Standard Setting Organisations (SSOs), i.e. the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), of which TSDSI is also a member. Any deviation from a harmonised standard development process can lead to various adverse impacts on relevant stakeholders.

Historically, India – the world’s largest telecom market, has been reliant on foreign mobile communication technology, due to the dearth of Indian Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) in the sector. To accelerate IPR led innovation, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and Indian telecom industry (comprising of telecom operators and manufacturers, academia etc.) came together in 2014, and formed TSDSI.

Notably, its goals are in line with the objectives of India’s National Digital Communications Policy 2018 (NDCP):

  1. Developing Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) in the field of digital communication technologies;
  2. Creating globally recognized IPRs in India; and
  3. Increasing India’s contribution to Global Value Chains (GVCs). These goals become more relevant with 5G around the corner, GVCs of which are expected to contribute ~US$ 13.2tn in global economic value by 2035, while also generating employment for ~22.3mn people.

As a part of achieving these milestones, the government strategised to provide financial incentives for the development of SEPs in the field of mobile communications technologies, and also constituted a research team from leading academic institutions in the country, led by Indian Institute of Technology – Madras. The research team has started to make commendable headway in a short span of time, and has started applying for hundreds of patents relevant to the 5G technology, some of which they aspire to get accepted as SEPs.

TSDSI’s push in favour of LMLC led to its acceptance as a mandatory test configuration under the Rural eMBB (enhanced Mobile BroadBand) test environment for 5G in 2017, which is expected to enhance the signal transmission range of base stations and improve the battery life of mobile phones, which are both critical to rural India’s needs. Now, TSDSI is pitching for further enhancements in the LMLC technology, through its RIT enhancement,which claims to further optimise LMLC technology in line with India’s needs.It is believed to enable rapid and affordable deployment of 5G in rural, remote and sparsely populated areas, thereby unlocking the potential to cover all of India’s villages with mobile towers.

The efforts of the TSDSI are laudable, and may contribute in helping India bridge the digital divide prevalent in the country. They also mark the first footprints of India’s path towards transforming into a knowledge-based economy, at least with respect to the telecom sector in future. However, various telecom companies, as well as industry associations, allege a lack of harmonisation of India’s proposed standards, and the ones which are being finalised by 3GPP.

Consumer Unity & Trust Society’s (CUTS) and Broadband India Forum’s (BIF) joint report titled ‘Standards and Welfare Maximisation –Towards a Competitive and Innovative 5G Ecosystem in India’ (2018), had highlighted the importance of harmonised/collaborative standard setting over unilateral standard setting processes, with respect to interoperability, economies of scale, fair competition, follow-on innovation, and consumer choice.

In the current context, TSDSI’s push for having a National Standard for bridging the digital divide may become a classic case of the economic concept of the ‘Cobra Effect’, wherein an attempted solution to a problem makes the problem even worse. Such effect may be based on various parameters.

First, it may lead to a delay in 5G technology being made available in India by nearly two years, since chipset makers will have to develop two variants of the same technology for complying with two different standards. This may prolong the wait for rural consumers in being connected with 5G.Also, preliminary findings of CUTS’ study titled ‘5G in India – Demystifying Reality from Myth’, shows that urban Indian consumers are eager to adopt the various use cases expected to be enabled by the 5G technology, and are anticipating its quick roll-out.

Second, there is a risk of increase in costs of 5G enabled devices for Indian consumers, due to increase in costs of production (development, testing and implementation) of fragmented 5G technology. Again, rural consumers may lose most due to possible lack of affordability.

Third, deviation from global standards may hamper interoperability. Devices built on unilateral Indian standards,are believed to get disconnected from international mobile networks, due to which Indian consumers may not be able to avail international roaming facilities, and vice versa.

Fourth, having India specific products/services may reduce competition, and diminish follow-on innovation, which may adversely impact not only end consumers, but other users of the 5G technology – start-ups working on Internet of Things (IoT), and other 5G reliant technologies. This may isolate India from GVCs. Consumer choice of 5G enabled products and services in India are also likely to curbed. This may even result in lack of innovative use cases for rural India.

There is therefore a need for TSDSI to undertake further study on these risks from a multi-stakeholder perspective and hold inclusive stakeholder consultations, before pushing for adoption of its well-intentioned standards, to avoid unintended consequences. Summing up, it is important to support the TSDSI is its endeavour of innovation for bridging the digital divide. However, it is imperative that its technology is harmonised with global technology standards, else it runs the risk of doing more harm than good, with respect to 5G in India.

(Sidharth Narayan, Assistant Policy Analyst, CUTS International contributed to the article).

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