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Indian telcos' 5G rollout is mired in controversy

By Surajeet Das Gupta
September 23, 2020 19:50 IST
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The operators say that the move to have an India-specific standard will raise the costs not only of telecom networks but of chipsets for mobile devices because they will have to be made for the local market and, as such, will not enjoy global economies of scale.

Telecom operators are locked in a bitter battle with key members of the Telecommunications Standards Development Society, India (TSDSI) for trying to push through an India-specific standard for 5G called TSDSI Radio Interface Standard or RIT.

The operators would rather go along with the global standards set by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project or 3GPP.

 

The project, which includes all global telecom and gear makers as members, started by setting up global 3G standards and is now handling 5G standards for the globe.

The operators say that the move to have an India-specific standard will raise the costs not only of telecom networks but of chipsets for mobile devices because they will have to be made for the local market and, as such, will not enjoy global economies of scale.

They also argue that a separate standard will lead to serious inter-portability issues such as Indians not being able to use their Indian phones in another country.

TSDSI’s proposal also means that it will not be possible to integrate a 4G network seamlessly with a 5G network, forcing Indian operators to go for only independent 5G networks which will be costly.

Yet another problem, say operators, is that it will completely derail India’s ambition to be a manufacturing hub of 5G telecom equipment and mobile devices for the world.

“3GPP and RIT are two different standards for 5G. It is like choosing between CDMA and GSM. If we adopt RIT, India will remain an island in the world.

"You won’t be able to roam abroad with the same phone, and chipsets and radios will have to be designed only for India, increasing costs.

"Just like CDMA which died out or WiMax which started in South Korea but did not take off, RIT will meet the same fate,” says a top executive of a telecom operating company.

TSDSI was set up as an autonomous standards body with members from operators, telecom gear makers, academia (including the Indian Institutes of Technology in various cities), chip set makers, R&D centres, and the Department of Telecommunications.

TSDSI believes that RIT (developed at IIT Madras) suits Indian conditions.

Its chairman Bhaskar Ramamurthi has said that it is designed to work in rural areas with low speed mobility and large cells with a radius of six km.

The latest version has increased this to 12 km.

This could ensure affordable broadband, based on indigenous technology, covering the country.

Those who back Ramamurthi explain that the ITU mandates a requirement of only 3 km.

But they acknowledge that RIT has not drawn support from global majors in the 3GPP as most of these countries do not have the peculiarities of a large rural population.

Leading global telecom gear makers who are members of 3GPP echo the same view as that of Indian operators.

“Even if the RIT standard is accepted in India, it should not be made mandatory.

"Operators should be given the freedom to choose between RIT and 3GPP,” says an  executive with a leading global telecom equipment manufacturer.

In a communication to Ramamurthi, Bharti Airtel has raised some key issues on the working of the TSDSI proposal on behalf of the industry.

It has argued that the claim of a 12 km radius according to the ITU documents has neither deliberated on nor endorsed.

It would therefore be appropriate for Ramamurthi, as chairman, to initiate a study and encourage IIT-Madras to subject the technical aspects of the TSDSI proposal to validation.

Bharti Airtel has also complained that the TSDSI study group has not published the minutes of meetings, as required under the rules.

However, Bharti Airtel declined to comment.

The company has asked the chairman, as head of TSDSI, to help establish its  neutrality and sustainability.

Photograph: Fabian Bimmer/Reuters

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Surajeet Das Gupta in New Delhi
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