India has proven to be a giant in the mobile industry, both as a consumer and now as a producer. With more than 1.3 billion people spread across a vast and diverse geographical area, it has an immense pool of engineers and also a large customer base.
In 2016, India was home to 20% of all mobile phone subscribers on the planet and since then it has had the fastest-growing smartphone market in the world. Market projections from the Ericsson Mobility Report suggest that the number of mobile subscriptions in India will reach more than 1.3 billion by 2021.
5G is the first occasion where India has been able to participate in the development of mobile standards. This provided an opportunity to add awareness of the needs across regions other than North America and Europe, for example.
This article is based on the Tech 2030 podcast episode “The Mobile Industry in India.” Click here to listen
The picture of telecom in India wasn’t this rosy a few decades back. In the early 1980s, there was a waiting period of more than six months to get a landline or a connection at home in India after the application was approved.
The Centre for Development of Telematics, also known as C-DOT, was established in 1984 as a telecommunications technology development centre, with an initial mandate of designing and developing digital exchanges. It was a pivotal point for Telecom in India.
“They built a telephone exchange. So not only was the price point an issue. It was also that this telecom equipment, which was being manufactured, which had been designed for the US or Europe, had to run in an air conditioning environment. It required some very sophisticated operator level skills, and the operator intervention was very hard to scale and deploy and manage in India. Then C-DOT built an exchange with some very India-specific things,” recalls Pamela Kumar, Director General of Telecommunications Standards Development Society of India (TSDSI).
“First and foremost, it could run without air conditioning. The rural exchange which was built did not even need an operator. It was a fully automated exchange. And the man-machine interface was simplified drastically,” Kumar explained. Later, C-DOT came up with a unique idea called STD booths, a payphone replacement.
Till recently, global mobile standards such as 3G and 4G were developed and deployed first by advanced countries and regions such as the US, Europe and Japan. Since the standards and technologies are meant to be applicable globally, do they fit well with the requirements and conditions in a developing country like India?
“Technology gets introduced in rest of the world and brought into India. If you take it in its native form and try to force fit it in India, it doesn’t work. It takes a long time to adapt it to the Indian needs and Indian conditions and acceptability to the Indian customers. Once that happens, then it picks up exponentially,” the executive explained. “Why not address this in the very beginning [of deployments], why don’t we understand Indian requirements and bring them into the standards development, which will influence the development of technology?”
A developing country like India significantly varies in geographic area, population density, average income, and GDP from Western countries. How do these factors impact mobile infrastructure deployment and services? What are the challenges India faces? Density is one of them.
“The [combined] population [of North America and Europe] is the same of India, but the area is 10 times larger. For any engineer who’s designing technology, when you’re putting up these base stations you work to serve a certain number of subscribers. [When it comes to] IoT devices, every person has multiple devices. Here’s the density question,” Kumar said.
Comparison of the mobile data rates in different countries shows India has one of the lowest costs, which is mainly driven by the intense market competition. Indian telecoms are offering 1GB mobile data between $0.09 to $0.25, whereas in the US it is about 4 dollars and in Canada, it is as high as $10 per GB.
There has been an aggressive push for digital transformation and empowerment, which means having affordable mobile data even in the remotest parts of the country. By offering affordable data to consumers, the digital infrastructure enables ease of access to services like banking, governance and more.
Other challenges with the high population density are the affordability, sustainability, and potential environmental impact if a Western lifestyle is adopted. Pamela explains.
“Let’s look at power. The carbon footprint in the US is 1,378 Watts per person. Europe’s is about half of that. India is 87. If everybody [in India] aspires to live the lifestyle that is being experienced in the US and Europe, we would have to increase the carbon footprint by 2,000 to 2,300 Watts. The whole world would boil.”
In 2020, there were just above 20 million fixed-line subscriptions registered across India while there were over 1.15 billion wireless subscriptions in the country.
5G is the first occasion where India has been able to participate and add its specific requirements to the standards, some of which are common to other developing nations. One example is that the average distance between two village centres in India is 12km, which drives their mobility requirement. Pamela narrates their experience with ITU and 3GPP.
“They call it the low mobility-large cell. The first thing we did was we made this a requirement, a special use case under rural broadband at ITU. We believe it is not only India’s requirement, but the need of a large segment of the population across the world in developed and developing countries. Then this was accepted,” she explained.
At 3GPP, Kumar said there’s a need to have companies and researchers backing up India’s suggestions, which has not happened at a large scale so far.
The Transportation Issue
India’s mobile data consumption figures are mind-boggling. There have been an over a 30% uptick amid the pandemic. Reliance Jio, which is the most disruptive telecom provider in the country, witnessed over 2 exabytes of data consumed in one quarter this year. This translates to over 2 million terabytes of mobile data used.
“We had a workshop with people from [companies like] Sprint, Verizon, Reliance Jio. They told us that whenever they deployed a new base station in the US or Europe, they’d start with 30 to 40% utilisation, and over time they gradually grow utilisation by adding more features, more services, more subscribers on those base stations to reach 50 or 60% max, and maybe only on peak times like Mother’s Day they’d hit 80 or 90%,” Kumar said.
“In India, the minute telcos commission their base stations, within a few days or months they reach 80 to 90% utilisation and they often hit 100% utilisation on their base stations. So there is a different paradigm which you need to look at when you deploy technology.”
6G by India
In June this year, TSDSI became an active stakeholder in 6G technology and standards development from an early stage by submitting a vision for 6G to standards body ITU-R.
“With 6G we want to move one step ahead, and what’s driving us is that we see that every time we make this leapfrog and bring new technology to the country it also helps in socioeconomic development, helps us leap to the next level. The middle pillar [of our vision] is technology. We need to understand technology, deploy it and use it as a basis for moving forward. That is what is driving us,” Kumar said.
TSDSI’s vision is that 6G should be a technology that aids the development of a ubiquitous intelligent mobile connected society, bridge the digital gap with affordability, as well as focus on data protection management.
“Connected autonomous driving, that is another area we are looking into now. I think the first and foremost problem is solving the traffic problem in India, which is very unique. I remember I was visiting a company in San Diego and they were doing a demo on intelligent transport for 5G. Interestingly, a lot of the people there were doing this demo had actually done their undergrad in Bangalore. I told them that, ‘See, this is all based on the San Diego traffic. Can you take this source simulation and put Bangalore traffic into it and see if there will be any advantage?’”
As part of its journey, TSDSI plans to steer research in India to serve the goals in its 6G vision statement and continue engagement with global standard bodies for harmonisation of efforts, as well as innovate to develop technologies that support personalisation and localisation of services.
“The only way this can happen is if the understanding of local requirements is factored into global discussions. We need to create what we call use case labs. We need to create in our ecosystem a way to understand the use case – bring the user community and the technology providers together to do proof of concepts, pilots, trials, and innovations of technology, and build a global harmonisation,” Kumar argued.
“There will be a lot of local innovation and it will benefit the entire global community, especially with these IoT solutions, which are going to penetrate all kinds of places,” she added.
Today, in India, the push to accelerate the transition from being “digital-first” to “digital-throughout” is imperative. What are the challenges to meet these “Great Expectations”? In Pamela’s opinion, India is the best place to live now, if you are an engineer or entrepreneur.
“A place like India, at this time, is probably the best place to be because the problems to be solved here are the hardest. The need for technology and the potential that technology can fulfil in making a fundamental difference to people’s lives. The fundamentals of life, like education and healthcare and governance, everything is impacted by technology in our country today. India is probably the most exciting place to be if you really are innovative and creative and love challenges.”
Featured image by Naveed Ahmed/Unsplash
Renuka Racha is a dynamic strategy and business leader with expertise & experience in international standards and technology development in Mobile/Wireless, Video and IoT. She is focused on innovation and creating strategic partnerships with her experience in engineering, product, and business development.