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5G: Is India Making a Mistake By Not Allowing Private Ownership Of Spectrum? Private 5G networks can augment existing capabilities and introduce new possibilities that other systems are not able to support

By Shrabona Ghosh

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Private 5th Generation (5G) mobile networks can help enable low latency, high bandwidth and seamless secure wireless connectivity in manufacturing, logistics and warehousing, third-party providers and municipalities. This is the premise on which a demand for such an arrangement was sought.

Recently, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) rejected a proposal by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to reserve some bands of airwaves for captive private networks, reported The Economic Times. According to the report, DoT believes if private networks want to utilise spectrum in those bands (Trai had proposed to reserve at least 40 MHz in the 3700-3800 MHz band, or 40 MHz in 4800-4990 MHz and at least 400 MHz in 28.5-29.5 GHz) they should lease them from telecom operators. This is a setback to enterprises which were in the fray to acquire airwaves reserved and directly allotted by the government for setting up a 5G private network.

Cisco defines private 5G networks as nonpublic mobile networks that can use licensed, unlicensed or shared spectrum. Private 5G networks are meant to augment existing capabilities and introduce new possibilities that other systems are not able to support. A private 5G network is affordable in large-scale use cases: enterprises build and maintain their private 5G networks, so the cost of adding additional cellular endpoints is at a fraction of the cost compared to public carrier services. Additionally, a private 5G network is easier to operate from a security and data privacy perspective.

Is India making a mistake by not allowing private ownership of spectrum? In Germany and Japan, the regulators have made spectrum available to industry on a location-basis. In Australia and Hong Kong, the regulators are making local 5G available for any organisation with use cases of mmWave. "In our opinion India is making a mistake by not allowing industries to get mmWave for their very specific locations of factories and warehouses, etc. India has a lot of large conglomerates such as Tata, Reliance, IHG operating in different sectors, who can benefit from this, and DoT's move doesn't help. Even the telcos are limited in their ability to service these mobile private networks (MPNs), so allowing private ownership in specific areas would have helped," said Nikhil Batra, research director - telecom, IDC Asia/Pacific, a global market intelligence firm.

"In China, the government has taken a similar approach where no industry can get their own spectrum. The telcos must service these companies and it appears that both Unicom and Telecom are doing exactly the same. China claims over 5,000 MPNs in place of tests or commercials," he added.

Enterprises that were keen to address their requirements around MPN in case of spectrum allotment will now be reduced to playing a support role with telcos taking charge in most of the areas.

The telcos fear such a move will give a backdoor entry to private companies, truncate the revenues of licensed telcos, rob the government of valuable revenues and create a non-level playing field. Earlier, flagging concerns against TRAI's recommendation on 5G spectrum for private enterprise networks to be assigned administratively on demand through a publicized online portal-based process, the Telcos said such a proposal could potentially rob telcos of their future 5G enterprise business revenues, estimated at around 40 per cent of overall 5G business revenues and destroy the 5G business case in India.

However, the Broadband India Forum (BIF), industry body for tech companies, had previously stated that with efficient private networks enterprises would increase productivity, which will open enhanced revenue streams for the telcos. In a letter to the government it said, "Captive usage in the current situation would only contribute a minor share in processes/applications like robotics, automation, etc, due to challenges in delivering the required SLAs (service level agreement) through public networks. Therefore, the speculated loss in revenues for telcos via enterprise services is a misplaced one."

Large enterprises were demanding direct allocation of airwaves as it gives them better control of the networks. "Enterprises would now have to partner with operators and lease the spectrum that could have been accessed at prices lower than market-determined price (in the scenario of direct allocation was approved by DoT). The rejection of reserving spectrum for captive private networks comes as a big relief for telcos as they view private networks to be a viable business case for 5G," said Charu Paliwal, a telecom expert.

Deploying networks is not the core business of these large enterprises and there is a whole set of technologies such as edge computing, industrial loT, etc., that come along with 5G technology. "Enterprises would still need to form strategic partnerships with operators as well as other players of the value chain to deploy private networks," added Paliwal.

From a spectrum point of view for any 5G deployment the role of telco is prerequisite unless it is in the experimentation phase. "The 5G solution is very collaborative by nature, it is not a one player game as there are telcos, equipment providers, system integrators, service providers and the enterprises involved. Whenever there is a new technology everyone wants to maximize it and the ecosystem takes time to adapt," said Monika Gupta, vice-president - 5G/telecom, Capgemini, a consulting, technology services and digital transformation firm.

Indian conglomerates are embedded deep within the political system and could possibly lobby for a reversal of the DoT ruling, "We believe that it is the best way to advance the country's 5G ecosystem. One good example is Korea, where they have an initiative to advance their 5G private networks ecosystem, allowing non-telecom operators to build and operate 5G networks using 4.7 GHz and 28 GHz spectrum, which is the dedicated frequency for private 5G networks in the country," added Batra of IDC.

As enterprises have been pursuing this, will contesting be a viable solution? "Contesting this move may further delay the process and hamper their digitalization plans. We have already seen enterprises such as Mahindra & Mahindra partnering with Airtel to deploy a private 5G network. We have also seen some successful trials over the last 1-2 years and it is now expected that some of these trials would convert into commercial contracts," noted Paliwal.

Shrabona Ghosh


A journalist with a cosmopolitan mindset. I lead a project called 'Corporate Innovations' wherein I cover corporates across verticals and try to tell stories on innovations. Apart from this, I write industry pieces on FMCGs, auto, aviation, 5G and defense. 
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