A video display presents 5G technology during a LG press event for CES 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (David Becker/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Once 5G comes to India, it will make a difference to every conceivable industry.

    But if the country is lax about the whereabouts of its data, it will likely find its user data out of its hands – and that’s a dangerous prospect.

Of all the technologies that are in the public eye, 5G communication networks must be the Cinderella. After all, nobody was that excited about 4G either, in its early days. And all 5G would be is an increase in speed, right? Compared to the more exciting stuff like artificial intelligence and gene editing, 5G may not attract much widespread interest. However, to mix fairy tales wildly, perhaps the ugly duckling will become the belle of the ball.

There are two points to consider here: why 5G may have a large impact on all kinds of areas including national security, and how India might take advantage of it.

Fear of 5G

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Even though 5G is getting minimal press and public mind share, those in the know are certainly worried about it. On 17 April, the United States (US) imposed a ban on Chinese telecom major, ZTE, over worries mostly related to 5G. There is general paranoia in the US about the technology – in a significant deviation from the norm of private sector initiatives being sacrosanct, a government think tank recommended that the US must build a government-owned 5G backbone to compete better (or at all) with the Chinese.

In March, the US blocked the acquisition of Qualcomm, a leading US telecom technology firm, by Broadcom, a Singapore-based competitor, for the unusual reason that Broadcom might reduce Qualcomm’s funding towards research and development (R&D) and therefore allow the Chinese to take the lead in 5G technology. Chinese telecom player Huawei has been cited often as the leader in an effort to leapfrog the US in communication technology. Even at the Mobile World Congress industry show, much of the hype revolved around 5G.

India seems to be fairly oblivious to the threat of Chinese domination of 5G and the opportunity to set standards. Given that “data is the new oil”, ceding dominance over the main conduit for large data to others is suicidal. (To put it bluntly, all of our personal data may end up in Chinese hands, and given the consequences of misappropriation of data as in the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, we really don’t want that to happen.) I have been a voice in the wilderness, screaming about how our laxity about data will hurt us badly (read here and here).

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On the other hand, there is the missed opportunity. As the second-largest potential market for 5G, India has serious buyer power. By setting standards so that the price of entry into the Indian market is high, we can extract concessions, including the transfer of technology to India as well as force ‘Make in India’ manufacturing operations. So there is both an opportunity and a threat.

India does have a committee, constituted by the Telecom Secretary, that is looking at these issues. But if I remember right, it consists mostly of academics and bureaucrats, who are not known for moving swiftly and capturing the value from a new technology. There is urgency, and industry experts should also be involved, and the committee’s recommendations must be implemented.

The nature of the beast

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So what exactly is this animal? At first glance, 5G, as the name implies, is merely the next generation of wireless technology, and each new generation (2G, 3G, and 4G) has brought with it quantum leaps in our ability to communicate (and increasingly, compute). Where exactly is India in the scheme of things? Are we among the stragglers once again, with negative consequences for the domestic industry and intellectual property, as in the case of the previous generations?

The criteria for networks to be certified as 5G are as follows, from the GSM Association:

- Significantly higher download and upload speeds compared to 4G, with proposed minimum download speed at 1 Gigabytes per second (GBps), and anticipated average speed of about 10GBps

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- 1 millisecond latency

- 1000x bandwidth per unit rea

- 10-100x number of connected devices

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- Apparent 99.999 per cent availability

- Apparent 100 per cent coverage

- 90 per cent reduction in network energy usage

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- Up to 10 years of battery life for low-power devices

Your existing 4G device will probably have to be replaced to take advantage of these speeds, but the first real roll-outs anywhere in the world are still some time away. South Korea may lead the pack in 2019, and perhaps China, Japan, and the US in 2020. There has been a spectrum auction already in the United Kingdom.

There is something quite worrying about 5G technology: losing out on it may lead to a loss of national competitiveness, according to CNET (“Who’s most ready for 5G? China, not the US, leads all”, 16 April), quoting a report from CTIA (Cellular Telephony Industry Association in the US). There are estimates that Chinese companies (Huawei alone) already own 10 per cent of all the ‘standards-essential’ patents – that is, the crucial intellectual property that all parties must license to comply with a technical standard.

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This may have prompted the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS) to issue a warning that resulted in the scuttling of the proposed $142 billion hostile takeover of Qualcomm by Broadcom, saying that the deal might lead to China overtaking the US in 5G technology. CFIUS felt that the weakening of Qualcomm’s R&D would allow China to set 5G standards, and this is something that India needs to worry about too.

In addition, the National Security Council in the US proposed a ‘moonshot’ solution, of the government investing in a single national 5G backbone so that it could prevent snooping by China on the massive data it would handle, and on which critical infrastructure like self-driving cars will depend. While this may not be politically feasible (the US has done quite well with private sector competition in telecom so far), it shows the gravity of the situation.

It may well be desirable for India to also consider the possibility of a single national 5G network that can then be used by private sector players as a platform to offer their own services on top. For one thing, the currently cash-strapped telecom players in India (going through a brutal price war) will probably not be in any shape to bid on a spectrum auction or to shell out the billions of dollars needed to operationalise a nationwide 5G network in the next couple of years. (Even Jio, with Reliance’s deep pockets, will be reluctant to add to the reputed $25 billion in capital costs it has already incurred.)

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So what’s the use of 5G?

That’s the key question, and the answer is, nearly every industry will be affected by the introduction of 5G. The bottom line is that with 5G we are migrating from telecom as a people-to-people or people-to-machine technology to one that will become increasingly machine-to-machine. If you look at previous industry transitions, 2G enabled us to communicate much better with SMS (Short Message Service) and, to a limited extent, internet access; 3G enabled the era of the smartphone, social media, and uninterrupted connectivity; 4G has made us data-hogs, and we now have true broadband access to our friends all over the world and the ability to download movies at the drop of a hat.

But 5G is different. While we’ll be able to become bigger data consumers than ever before, it is all the data that is created by the Internet of Things (IoT) devices that will make 5G a quantum leap. These devices will be all around us (billions of them) and they will be talking to each other, almost ignoring us, and all the Big Data thus generated will have significant consequences for us.

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For instance, take self-driving cars. They need to consume so much data per second to be fully aware of their surroundings (including all the sensors on the roads that will guide them to form convoys or to avoid collisions, and downloading maps and weather reports from the cloud) that only a 5G class network can make them feasible.

This spills over into every other industry. But just to look at a few use cases with an Indian angle, let us consider a limited set of industries (courtesy telecom major Ericsson’s 2017 5G Readiness Survey):

- Entertainment and media. High-quality streaming video to mobile devices (yes, Jio has brought us this, but 5G will do the streaming much faster, and more people in more locations can do this at once); mobile virtual and augmented reality gaming (although I have my doubts if this is a good thing after seeing how addicted people are to it already); and down the road, immersive integrated entertainment, media, and gaming, which surrounds you and you can share with others if you wish (yes, folks, we can vegetate in imaginary worlds glued to our mobiles!).

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- Automotive. I’m not sure the world of autonomous self-driving cars that shows up at your home and gently whisks you to your office is going to happen anytime soon in India, given the complexities of driving (watch out for that guy on the motorbike coming straight at you on the wrong side of the road!) or the lack of proper street numbering. However, if we are ever going to get to self-driving car nirvana in India, surely we need to transfer far more data to the car in India than in the more organised West, and 5G will help in that direction.

- Healthcare. Home healthcare delivery and remote robotic surgery are possibilities. In India, there are large numbers of people who are outside the normal reach of specialists by virtue of their remoteness. These are, for instance, the people that Aravind Eye Care has reached out to successfully with their rural schemes. High data throughput will certainly help in telemedicine. There is also an increasing number of senior citizens who are on their own, and monitoring them remotely will be useful. Robotic surgery may be a little down the road, but the low latency in 5G technology will make it a more real-time experience for the surgeon.

- Transport and supply chain. With better route planning in real-time and re-routing around bottlenecks, efficiency in transport can be achieved for, say, trucking and railways. Going one step further, blockchain- and IoT-based tracking of goods will reduce pilferage and adulteration. Smart tags can be used to continuously monitor freight at the package level. Similarly, smart parking spaces with built-in IoT devices will make it easier to manage the inventory of slots and easier for car owners to park as well as locate their cars later.

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- Home automation and energy management. By creating networks of devices that can be controlled and monitored remotely, it is possible to improve efficiency. In addition, having the ability to provide a dynamic monitoring of energy use and consume it from the grid at the lowest cost (e.g., set your washing machine to run at 4am or turn off your fridge from 7pm to 10pm automatically while maintaining the temperature). As more households opt for solar energy and electric cars, the ability to manage grid input and output will be useful.

- Agriculture. Quite possibly the biggest impact area in India. Once there are sensors in place, it is quite possible to run farms with minimum water, fertiliser, and pesticide use. By coordinating ground-level observation with drones and satellite-level data, there will be an opportunity to manage farms, especially in these times of water shortage and uncertain weather. The Big Data that is thus captured may even be used in conjunctions with artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the automation of farms, especially in boutique farming such as for cash crops like vanilla or cocoa.

- A plethora of other segments. Wherever sensors can be used (e.g., in creating a system with massive environmental data for, say, a blind person to be able to navigate themselves), there will be a substantial impact from the introduction of 5G. I would have to say that we are only limited by our imagination in this case.

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Once 5G comes to India, we’ll wonder how we got along without it. But to go back to the initial concern, it should not be a technology owned and managed by the Chinese or the Americans, because it behoves us to keep our data to ourselves, lest it be used against us, as in the case of Cambridge Analytica. 5G is the ‘mother of all fat pipes’, and India needs to pay due attention to owning the pipe.

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