Telcos differ on adoption of India-centric 5G norms; Bharti Airtel, Vi caution of gaps in standards

TSDSI’s 5G standard, among other things, calls for deployment of 5G services in the 3.4 GHz band and suggests mobile towers be spaced 12 km apart in villages to ensure ubiquitous 5G coverage in rural India.

Kolkata: Adoption of a homegrown 5G standard is set to become the latest flashpoint between Reliance Jio Infocomm and older telcos Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea (Vi). The Mukesh Ambani-owned telco is backing high-speed broadband technology with Indian standards to generate indigenous intellectual property rights (IPR). Its rivals say that these fall short in terms of interoperability with global standards and thus won’t be commercially viable.

Jio has backed the country-specific 5G norm proposed by the Telecom Standards Development Society, India (TSDSI). Acceptance of this can lead to the first Indian IPR on the global 5G stage, it says. Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea have cautioned the government about gaps in the India-centric 5G specifications proposed by TSDSI, saying they don’t mesh with global standards recommended by the 3GPP (the 3rd Generation Partnership Project).

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The latter’s standards govern LTE networks operations worldwide and its suggested 5G standard has been backed by the International Telecom Union (ITU). Telcos in the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Germany, China, Russia and the Middle East among others are rolling out 5G services based on 3GPP’s standard.

Jio, Airtel, Vi, Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung did not reply to ET’s queries.

TSDSI’s 5G standard, among other things, calls for deployment of 5G services in the 3.4 GHz band and suggests mobile towers be spaced 12 km apart in villages to ensure ubiquitous 5G coverage in rural India.

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Equipment Vendors Back Airtel, Vi
This is at odds with 3GPP’s 5G standard that backs 5G deployment in the 700 MHz band and wants mobile towers to be spaced 6 km apart.

“Jio wants discussions on the TSDSI-proposed Indian 5G standard to happen among policy makers, regulators and standards developers in India and globally, including the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) and ITU,” said a top industry executive aware of matters. “It feels any moves to block these talks will undermine local innovation and nip efforts to have the first Indian IPR in the global 5G arena.”

However, the older carriers have warned that adoption of a purely India-centric 5G radio standard will entail hardware changes in base stations and mobile devices, increasing rollout and phone costs, hurting the business case.

People aware of the matter say the stance of Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea is being backed by their global telecom equipment vendor partners. The suppliers want to ensure similar technology standards are adopted across the world to benefit from economies of scale, they said.

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Jio’s 5G technology, likely to be ready for field deployment next year, will reduce its dependence on established global gear makers, said experts. The company also plans to offer its 5G tech to telcos across the world after testing and scaling it in the Indian market.

“Jio supports the India-centric approach and the 5G standard and does not agree with the views of our other members who want the gaps within the current TSDSI standards to be addressed before adoption in India and other global markets to ensure it is interoperable, implementable and has benefits for the entire India market,” SP Kochhar, director general of Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), wrote in an October 8 letter to telecom secretary Anshu Prakash. COAI represents Jio, Airtel, Vi and global network vendors such as Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson. ET has seen a copy of the letter.

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The debate on 5G standards in India comes as auctions for the next-gen airwaves have been pushed back to sometime next year, with trials for use cases also not having started. Telcos such as Bharti Airtel appear in no hurry, saying India can easily wait until 2022 for 5G, by which time the ecosystem, including India-specific use cases and devices, will be developed.

Kochhar said TSDSI has acknowledged that its 5G specifications aren’t interoperable with globally defined 3GPP standards.

“There are open issues in the TSDSI specification which are work-in-progress and need to be considered by DoT,” he said in the letter to Prakash. COAI’s members (except Jio) have said that adoption of TSDSI’s proposed standard without addressing the gaps could make India an island in the global 5G landscape, he said in the letter. That could put India in a situation similar to that of China, which had sought to push its homegrown 3G standard specifications.

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