• United States
Poojitha Jayadevan
Staff Writer

How Indian companies are building towards 5G deployment

Oct 14, 20208 mins

Indian enterprises are lining up for the opportunity to build 5G networks, at home and abroad, although it will still be a year or two before Indian operators are ready to offer commercial 5G services.

5g wireless mobile data connection
Credit: Thinkstock

Long before Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of Atmanirbhar Bharat, Indian companies were engaged in developing indigenous solutions for 5G telecommunications networks.

There’s strong demand for high-speed mobile data in India, with 97 percent of the country’s 700 million broadband subscribers getting their service wirelessly in July 2020, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

To increase capacity, network operator Jio is working on its own end-to-end 5G solutions, while companies like Saankhya Labs are focusing on radio units and Tech Mahindra is developing private 5G networks for other enterprises.

Some countries have already licensed spectrum for 5G services and, while India hasn’t taken that step yet, businesses here are busy developing their 5G solutions, whether in chipsets, hardware, open radio access networks or network management software, looking for a share of the local, and global, network infrastructure market. Here, Computerworld India takes stock of their progress.

India and 5G

Even though India is not an early adopter of 5G, it isn’t lagging behind, says Dimitri Mavrakis, senior research director at ABI Research. One Indian company in particular has caught his attention.

“Reliance Jio is set to be the major player in the 5G development because of the three main steps Jio has taken: huge investments from companies like Facebook and Google, valuable partnerships with companies like Microsoft, and planned acquisitions of companies like Radisys,” he says.

Mavrakis expects Jio will make more acquisitions to strengthen its position not just as a network operator but as a vendor of equipment to other operators. “Jio seeks to become a major player in 5G and use this expertise for their own network and sell its solutions to other operators outside India. Whether they do it themselves or with help from system integrators like Tech Mahindra or Wipro remains to be seen,” he says.

While 5G networks will communicate with mobile devices at different radio frequencies than the existing 2G (GSM), 3G and 4G (LTE) networks, the changes don’t stop there. They will also encode the radio signals in more efficient ways, and route traffic differently in the network core.

At wireless technology and semiconductor solution provider Saankhya Labs, Chief Technology Officer Anindhya Saha is working on 5G radio solutions for markets worldwide.

“There are multiple bands that are allocated by the telecom regulatory authorities of different nations and we need to design radio for each band,” says Saha. “We are developing O-RAN compliant 5G radio units and are in advanced stages of development of at least five such radio bands.”

The Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) Alliance publishes a set of a specifications for open interfaces between virtualized network elements built on white-box hardware, allowing O-RAN compliant components to interoperate with those from other manufacturers.

Saha says O-RAN is an ideal platform for greenfield deployments. “In the traditional method, telcos didn’t have the mix and match option and had to depend completely on the big three equipment vendors, Nokia Networks, Ericsson, and Huawei.” With O-RAN, he says, companies can disaggregate their networks, allowing smaller players to enter the market. 5G infrastructure can be separated into multiple parts and each part can come from a different vendor. Disaggregation enables telcos to reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO). “We are also working on power optimization to reduce opex and TCOs along with leveraging our prior know-how to develop chips and customize it for 5G RFs.”

Dhiraj Badgujar, a senior technology analyst at market research firm Frost & Sullivan, is on the same page as Saha. Currently, most Indian telcos’ networking gear is sourced from big vendors such as Samsung, Ericsson, and Nokia. If India can develop its own networking equipment, it will reduce import costs, says Badgujar. “The majority of the capital infrastructure/capex goes into managing infrastructure, and it can significantly reduce since it will be sourced from domestic partners. It will also help in reducing operating costs,” he says.

India’s 5G strength

Badgujar believes that India has an advantage in the market for 5G technology. Previous mobile network upgrades were defined more by their hardware, whereas 5G innovation is defined more by software, an area where India’s technology strength lies.

“5G opens opportunities in the areas of network optimization, network capacity, and network monitoring, so in terms of enhancing or upgrading infrastructure, system integrators and software players have various opportunities,” says Badgujar.

That’s not to say software is the only area where India can play. Badgujar says people with a thorough understanding of backhaul network infrastructure will be in demand the most. There will also be a demand for people with radio technology and fiber deployment know-how to develop a robust 5G network.

For Manish Vyas, CEO of network services at Tech Mahindra, Indian businesses will need to pay attention to their next-generation technologies skills inventory, reskilling and upskilling existing employees and hiring carefully.

“Leveraging our in-house artificial intelligence-based learning platform, UaaS (upskilling as a service), we aim to accelerate skill development and train associates in emerging technologies. Our engineers continuously upskill themselves in various facets including but not limited to edge computing, network slicing, Network Function Virtualization (NFV), network security & automation,” he says.

The benefits of 5G cascade when it is converged with other technologies like AI, ML, IoT, and analytics, and that is what Indian companies are exploring. Tech Mahindra is converging its 5G offerings to cater to IoT applications.

“We are helping enterprises set up private wireless networks on one hand and we are also enabling industrial internet of things use cases,” Vyas says. These include industry 4.0 floor-to-floor automation, control of autonomous trucks in open cast mines, logistics, warehousing, electricity distribution grids and venue services.

Mavrakis of ABI Research highlights that if someone is to build a private 5G network, they need vendors to provide them with good equipment and the risks in such scenarios remain unknown. “When a new vendor enters the market, it is never black and white, and it comes with its own pros and cons. Equipment from companies like Nokia and Ericson is market-tested and proven, and it’s almost certainly how they would operate.”

Smaller customers need smaller vendors

The arrival of smaller equipment vendors is also good news for smaller customers, as their offering will be a better match, he says. “It will be a lot cheaper and more flexible, and can provide customized solutions to smaller companies. Small vendors will have adequate manpower to be dedicated to a client unlike companies like Huawei or Nokia whose main target would be big accounts like BMW, and might even fail to deliver customized solutions to smaller accounts.”

Tech Mahindra isn’t new to the telecommunications business. It has already collaborated with state-run Indian Telephone Industries Ltd (ITI) to enable the manufacturing of 4G equipment and work on building capabilities for 5G equipment for the Indian market.

“With ITI, we will also be developing next-generation wireless technology solutions and work together in the areas of smart cities and healthcare services,” says Vyas.

There are other Indian companies entering the 5G market too.

Reliance Jio has designed its own end-to-end 5G solutions for domestic use and hopes to export them as managed services in future.

Sterlite Technology too is aiming to set up end-to-end 5G ecosystems. It has collaborated with VMware to develop 5G access solutions that will enable the installation of complex 5G rollouts by telcos and large enterprises. Sterlite is also investing to build an ecosystem of partners in hardware manufacturing, cloud computing, and research.

Meanwhile Cyient, based in Hyderabad, is adapting its network planning services for communications service providers to include 5G.

Frost & Sullivan’s Badgujar predicts that it will take a long time for Indian companies to become a competitive threat for companies like Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei, which dominate the global market.

“They play an active role in the standardization of upcoming technologies like 5G and have huge investment capabilities and IT portfolios and R&D,” he says. “However, India’s initial target will be countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. The pricing is the main factor here. If operators from these countries don’t have enough CAPEX to spend on network infrastructure, they can leverage the Indian equipment.”

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of potential in the home market, Badgujar says: “A country like India has a lot of scope for fiber densification and the government is working on it on a high scale by bringing in the national broadband policy.”