How India Raced Ahead Of United States In The 5G Game

Amit Agrahari

Oct 22, 2023, 11:50 AM | Updated 11:50 AM IST

In the last six years, India took a proactive approach in contributing to 5G telecom standards
In the last six years, India took a proactive approach in contributing to 5G telecom standards
  • India's Telecom Stack can be a template for deep-tech sectors. It could work as an alternative to China’s telecom dominance.
  • As India prepares itself for the seventh edition of India Mobile Congress to be held at Bharat Mandapam (27-29 October 2023), this is a good time to reflect on the progress made by the country in the last six years since the launch of first event in September 2017. 

    In the last five decades, telecom has become the lifeline of modernity, with economic, security, and societal value.

    Thus, for a country that faces security threats from both of its large neighbours and aims to hold an important place in emerging geopolitical reality, it is essential to be among the top five countries in telecom equipment design and manufacturing capacity.

    In the last 75 years, India has reached the circle of five in many metrics like GDP, space capacity, digital payments, vaccine capacity and so on.

    The progress has been phenomenal in the last decade with the country transitioning from a passive consumer of technology to an active producer in areas like vaccines, digital public infrastructure, and now telecom.

    With the learnings from building world-class products in these novel areas, slowly the country is making inroads in more traditional areas of technology like defense and telecom. 

    The United States, a traditional leader in telecom equipment with legendary companies such Western Electric and ITT in the 1970s, Lucent and Nortel (based out of Canada, but US was a major development centre) later in 1990s, lost its leadership with the merger of Lucent Technologies with the French giant Alcatel SA in 2006. 

    Europe became the hub of telecom equipment manufacturing during the 3G era with companies like Nokia, Ericsson, Alcatel.

    However, in the face of Chinese competition in the 4G era, the Western dominance further accentuated and in 2015 Nokia agreed to buy its smaller French rival Alcatel-Lucent for $16.6 billion.

    By the second half of 2010s, the telecom equipment market had consolidated into five major players based out of four countries (Huawei and ZTE, China; Ericsson, Sweden; Nokia, Finland; Samsung, South Korea) and the Chinese leadership evident with one-third of the market share. 

    When the world came to realize that Huawei is not just a telecom company, but also a snooping arm of the Chinese military, the non-Chinese axis got anxious to find an alternative.

    Thankfully, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India was already working to develop indigenous telecom networks from September 2017, when a steering committee was formed under the leadership of Professor A J Paulraj of Stanford University with members including current DST Secretary Abhay Karandikar.

    The India Mobile Congress (IMC) was launched in the same month and five years after that Prime Minister Modi did the first 5G call on a fully indigenous telecom equipment at the sixth edition of IMC in October 2022. 

    In the last six years, India took a proactive approach in contributing to fifth-generation telecom standards and came up with 5Gi aimed at improving coverage in rural and remote areas.

    Indigenous 5G Testbed challenge was given to eight prestigious academic institutions in March, 2018 with allocation of Rs 224 crore and IIT-Madras as lead.

    The National Digital Communications Policy 2018 was formulated with the vision of making India AtmaNirbhar in telecom products, which account for around $10 billion of annual imports and an implementation cell for 5G was formed in August 2018. 

    A more radical shift in the telecom sector was the private funding for private innovation and government buying through BSNL.

    The idea of public funding for private innovation was seeded by Dr M K Bhan, who, inspired by  Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), created Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) for the biotech sector.

    Later it was adopted in defence also through iDEX. 

    Public procurement is a powerful tool to develop domestic industries and has been used by every country that is industrialised.

    Be it the American defence industry that became a global leader riding on orders from American armed forces, or the example of India’s agriculture sector where public procurement became the most important tool of policy intervention for increasing domestic production.

    Most recently, the public procurement of vaccines by the Modi government was a globally appreciated step. 

    Inspired by these examples, the Modi government decided to procure 4G equipment for telecom from successful indigenous players.

    Despite repeated efforts from the BSNL leadership to dodge, the government was able to convince it to hold a public trial in which five companies participated but only C-DoT, Tejas Networks consortium could succeed.

    This resulted in Rs 7,492 crore ($900 million) order from BSNL to this consortium, for supplying a master contract for the supply, support and annual maintenance services of its Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment. 

    In Telecom, public funding for private innovation started with Digital Communication Innovation Square Scheme in 2021, 2022, and 2023 under the Champion Services Sector Scheme implemented by Telecom Centres of Excellence, India on behalf of the Department of Telecommunications.

    This helped more than dozen deep-tech telecom product companies of the country, major ones which are Signalchip, Lekha Wireless, WiSig Networks and so on.

    A more courageous step was the announcement of the use of Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) for funding telecom startups under the Telecom Technology Development Fund (TTDF).

    The TTDF, coupled with DCIS and PLI/DLI, has enough funds to create a robust telecom ecosystem in India. 

    However, the government has chosen C-DoT, a major public sector unit, as the implementation agency for the TTDF fund.

    This creates a conflict of interest, because being a major product developer itself, how is C-DoT supposed to choose unbiased product developers that are working in the same area. 

    Thus, a better approach would be to have an independent lean agency like BIRAC to ensure that a telecom product ecosystem develops in the country in a fair and transparent manner.

    India already has an indigenous telecom product player and now a vibrant telecom product ecosystem is emerging.

    Given the highly concentrated nature of the telecom market and lack of innovation among Western companies, India should aim to supply telecom products to all major geographies including the United States, where the telecom story began. 

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