India is on the cusp of getting 5G, the trials have started and the spectrum auctions are awaited. On the device and user front, smartphones are also ready for the next-gen connection. But what’s going on on-ground? Is India really ready to bring in 5G, and if it isn’t, what needs to be done?
BT spoke to Magnus Ewerbring, Chief Technology Officer, APAC, Ericsson to learn more about all this. And here are some edited excerpts.
BT: Right now, how do you think Asia is placed to take on 5G? Is India ready technology-wise?
Magnus Ewerbring (ME): Yeah, absolutely. Here in Asia, several markets have been live with 5G for some time. Of course, if we take Northeast Asia — Japan was early out, Korea was first, and China followed very quickly. I think several other countries have launched it. Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and so on.
I think for India, it would be wonderful if the spectrum auctions can move along as we anticipate here in the next few months. Then the operators have the chance to start to deploy the networks and address the market and, of course, provide the 5G services to the consumers. I think it's a great opportunity to launch it now in India.
BT: When a country is preparing to launch 5G, what are the most basic things that need to be in place?
ME: The first thing, I think, is very much on the regulatory side: Are the market conditions clear? And is the spectrum being awarded to the operators so they can indeed, seek to build the networks and offer the services? And there again, coming back to the auctions that are imminent now, India needs to execute that as per the plan.
Then, it comes into the hands of the operators to deploy it. Now, of course, it's a massive undertaking — in a gigantic country like India — to deploy this in all circles and make sure it's commissioned and operating well. There are many reasons why I argue that this can be done perhaps even faster than when 4G was rolled out. One is the equipment that Ericsson has provided, where with a software upgrade, operators can use 5G. In the radio units we have supplied since 2015, our software is upgradeable to 5G, and they can even share on a range of the spectrum, i.e, 4G and 5G at the same time. That allows operators to quickly build coverage for the service by software upgrading the existing network.
On top of that, operators will, of course, also deploy the new frequency band and the 3.5 GHz bands that are hopefully coming to the market. And then naturally, operators in dense urban areas must go to the site, deploy the new equipment, commission it, and then turn it on. So, step by step, the footprint for that new gear will increase but you always have the existing frequencies to complement that.
While this is being done, 5G services can certainly be offered. There is one thing to think of — as the operators now have deployed the network, they also must make sure they have the right of access to the sites, they have the right of access to perhaps dimension the transportation, the backhaul of information from the site. And here again, the regulatory framework is very important.
The right of access — the possibilities by which the operators can update the sites — are they fair and reasonable to deploy a speedy deployment? I'd say in any country, it's worthwhile to overlook the regulatory framework in the sense that it enables this 5G rollout and that's so important for India. Then to offer the services, then operators, of course, can do that and will do that. But then the subscribers need to have devices that are 5G capable naturally.
We see a very strong trend in the industry that the numbers of 5G capable devices are increasing by the day. There are now more than a thousand different kinds of devices and this number is going up very quickly. And by having more new kinds of devices, more and more users coming in, and buying 5G devices, the price successively goes down as well. And as it goes down, more and more people can afford to buy it.
If you look at the world market, a reasonable mid-range phone is already 5G enabled or supports 5G services. We can see this effect in India already. I think India is the third-largest smartphone market in the world, even though 5G services have not been launched. So, there are many subscribers in India who have modern smartphones that are capable of 5G, but they can only use the 4G mode because the operators yet don't have the ability or the regulatory possibility to launch 5G.
So, I foresee a large potential to onboard 5G subscribers that already have the devices when the operators turn on the service. And then over time, as more and more users come in, and the cost of the devices goes down, we will see a large turnover to 5G. Globally, by 2027, Ericsson predicts that half of these subscriptions — 4.4 billion — will be 5G subscriptions and India's picking up very quickly in this.
On top of that, as the number of 5G subscribers increases, there will be lots of innovation with applications — different kinds of usage for 5G — and you will see new kinds of applications coming in. If we take the consumer segment, XR media applications will be more popular. We see already in markets like South Korea that the early adopters use AR/VR applications more and more. And the more they do the more advanced applications come in. So, I think over the next few years, we will see a lot of innovation coming along here. And it would be great to have Indian companies innovate in this application space for consumers as well as for enterprises.
BT: Like you said, in APAC and Asia and other countries also like Australia, this rollout has been staggered, but it is happening and India's probably one of the last countries on that list yet to get on board. Specifically, from this country's perspective, where do you think we're lagging?
ME: Well, it's a good question. And I talk to operators and media in many different countries. And I think, pretty much everywhere I go, this kind of question is there. Are we behind and so on? And it's a good question to ask because there is so much value to rolling out early, you have the early mover advantage. Now, for every entity here, the question is more - what do you do from now and onwards? And again, I think it's so great now for India to take the next step to award the spectrum, let the operators launch and unleash the innovation power in the local community.
If we look at the 5G journey in the world, it has started. That's a fact. But we're still in an early phase and so, as I mentioned, that the Ericsson mobility report predicts that by 2027, half of the subscriptions will be 5G. In 2027 we believe that 5G subscriptions may overtake 4G subscriptions. But 4G is still very large and will continue to be very large for many years to come.
Let's just reflect on the events in history. If we say by 2027, 5G becomes a dominant technology, it was launched in 2019 so it's taken eight years, that's the fastest pickup we've seen so far. But when we will have it in the 6th generation, we don't know yet, but perhaps it can be launched around 2030 then it will take let's say it takes 5, 6, or 7 years before 6G will dominate 5G. We are easily talking about 2035.
So, what I'm saying here is that 5G will be in very strong focus for a very long period. And I think one should reflect - on what's going to happen during this period when society builds its connectivity, consumers, enterprises, public institutions, etc., on 5G connectivity. And it's going to be an enormous innovation platform that will be in the marketplace over this time.
You will see small start-ups, you'll see big companies who invent and come up with usage applications that can be used on this 5G platform, again, for enterprise use, for consumer use, public use, etc. And that race is just in its early days. So, I think for India, with its great innovation, power, and many enterprises of varying ranges, it's a great place to come in and sort of innovate now.
So, I'd say award the frequencies, launch the services and start to use it and it's a great spot. Now's the time to use it, I'd say. And just to bring this digitalisation potential into the Indian society along, regardless of what happens in other parts of the world, is a phenomenal opportunity, and a great challenge to undertake because it's big and a lot of innovation needs to be done.
Just imagine the advantage of industries being more digitised in the way of working, how much value that can bring in terms of improved safety, in terms of quality, in terms of efficiency improvements. And there’s so much work to be done here in India. So, I think the important period is the next 3-5 years, and the countries must deploy it well, and have market conditions so that operators, the ones who put applications on top of it, and the ones who use the services can use it for the benefit under fair and reasonable terms.
That is the interesting play that’s going to happen over the next few years. And, I think India has all the chances to be a key player there and I say please act now. I'd say it's a great opportunity.
BT: What are the things that Ericsson is taking on, as far as APAC is concerned, to help roll out 5G faster across the country?
ME: By any means, of course, we try to make 5G ready for any country that wants to deploy it. And again, there are multiple steps here where we have talked before about the public side, the regulators' side, the operator side and then have the market as well as the device side.
So, on the regulatory and public side, of course, Ericsson is trying to be very active in India. We have a very long track record in India. I am very proud and happy about it. We have been present in India since 1903. We have had local manufacturing since 1994 and we have a very strong presence in our market organisation and the local R&D.
One key thing is to interact with the public side, and the government side, and by various means, discuss, provide information, and support in their undertaking on how to best set the framework for 5G in India. And of course, as in any nation, we advise on our knowledge from other markets, on - how can 5G be launched, how spectrum regulation is being done in other countries as examples. So, we are happy to bring our share to that kind of discussion that naturally is undertaken by the local authorities, Government institutions, and local industry, we are part of the local industry.
Then, with our customers, we try to engage as much as we can. We have showcased the potential of 5G in terms of coverage. We made deployments outside of Delhi to show how 5G can be used on the 3.5GHz spectrum and other spectrums. Showing that 5G greatly exceeds the coverage expectations in India. We are also showing the 5G industrial enterprise potential with digital manufacturing, as an example. So, by various means, we are trying to prepare tour customers on the potential of 5G, what kind of business they can tap and how to prepare the network. And again, I think it’s a great thing that operators with Ericsson gear can, to a great deal, leverage our expertise to gain early 5G coverage.
Then on the market and device side, Ericsson takes great pride to work with other providers of equipment. We have a very long tradition to work with the manufacturers of the very important chipsets that go into smartphones, to make sure that we are aligned early on what should be provided on their side and our side, and then with the providers of smartphones. So, I think we have a very early engagement to make sure that good devices can hit the market and good devices are in many price ranges. There are a lot of activities ongoing there which as a consumer perhaps you are not able to see when you go into a phone shop to evaluate the potential new smartphones. But before it reaches there, there are many activities where we are involved to test out the chipsets to make sure that they are fit for working in a 5G system.
Then, of course, we also work with companies that want to use 5G. On the industrial side, we work with many companies around the world. And we have been showcasing and we have been also doing a commercial deployment of industrial applications. With some companies, say ABB, which has a good footprint in India, we have made deployments with robots and controlled electrical motors, etc.
That knowledge is with that company, as an example, and can potentially be applied in any country where there is a fit between that industrial company and the usage of that equipment in a particular country. And there are many other companies here that we are working with. Many companies are ready to bring 5G applications to India as well. There was a media announcement not long ago from Capgemini, where Ericsson is engaging in other places of the world as well as in India.
BT: How much has the last two years of COVID affected or derailed that? And if it has derailed that, what are the things that you guys are doing to get back on track?
ME: I think COVID has made us draw several interesting conclusions, not the least of them is the importance of mobile systems. And again, to allow for mobility for the users, and then not only in terms of the consumer usage that we have seen a lot before but the work usage. And the fact that so many people have been working from home or elsewhere on the move in the last two years has hardened our belief on how important it is to have 5G to support this, going forward.
So, I think that has strengthened our thinking, strengthened the way we implement our products, the support for this behaviour that we have now and in the enhancements that are coming. Then, specifically for India, I think we have been able to supply our customers very well during this period and we have not had any large burden or shortage of supply due to COVID, as far as I am aware.
I think again the key thing here is the importance of the systems and I argue that when India is ready to go for 5G, in the actual deployment of course we are very happy to support and supply to our customers in India. And that is regardless of the impact that COVID may have had in the past. That is behind us in that sense. So, I think it's more of a learning experience to underpin the importance of always being connected, and always being connected in a work environment as well. And indeed, we have some support for this in our products, now that we hope our customers can use it more and more going forward.
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