Panel slams DoT for delay in 5G trials

‘India unprepared for roll-out, partial deployment of 5G tech possible only by end 2021 or early 2022’

Slamming the government for its ‘laid-back approach’ and delay in conducting 5G trials, a Parliamentary Panel has said that sufficient preparatory work had not been undertaken for introducing 5G services in India and that the country was likely to witness only partial deployment by 2021-end or early 2022.

In the report tabled in Parliament on Monday, the committee, headed by Shashi Tharoor, added that it was very likely that after missing the 2G, 3G and 4G buses, India was going to miss out on 5G opportunities, unless time-bound action is taken in core areas where governmental intervention is required.

“The committee, while deploring the Department’s [Department of Telecom’s] unconscionably long delay in auctioning of spectrum, recommends that spectrum auction including auctioning of 3300 MHz to 3600 MHz be conducted at the earliest,” the report said, adding that the DoT had assured that 3300 MHz to 3600 MHz, to be used for 5G, was going to be auctioned in the next six months or so.

As per the panel, inadequate availability of spectrum, high spectrum prices, poor development of use cases, low status of fiberisation, non-uniform right-of-way issues and deficient backhaul capacity are some of the factors coming in the way of a 5G services roll-out in India.

The committee noted that telcos had submitted 5G trial applications in January, 2020 but that till date, the guidelines for trials had not been made clear and there was no set date for commencement of these trials. “It is really disturbing to note that 5G trials have not yet been permitted. This is in complete contradiction to what the Department had informed the Committee…in February, 2020, that the government has allowed all applications for 5G trials in limited areas and for limited time to test potential 5G India-specific use cases.” The panel has sought the reason for delay from the Department of Telecom (DoT).

The DoT Secretary Anshu Prakash informed the committee that in India, 5G technology would initially ride on 4G technology, as per the report. “The committee have been informed that by the end of calendar year 2021 or beginning of 2022, there will be some roll-out in India for some specific uses, because 4G should continue in India for at least another 5-6 years. From the foregoing, the committee [is] inclined to conclude that sufficient preparatory work has not been undertaken for launching 5G services in India.”

The panel expressed disappointment that the DoT had ‘hardly learnt’ from the past delays as the vision for 5G which was reflected in the constitution of the High Level Forum and Expert Committees had not been transformed into action on the ground.

The committee was of the view that the issue of allocating the right amount of spectrum as demanded by the industry needed to be addressed by the DoT if India were to realise the benefits of 5G. “The committee recommends that the Department needs to have fruitful deliberation with the Department of Space and Ministry of Defence and an understanding must be reached at the earliest for identification of adequate spectrum for 5G services.”

Further, the committee pointed out that while sectoral regulator TRAI had, in 2015, recommended that there was an urgent need for audit of all allocated spectrum, both commercial as well as spectrum allocated to various PSUs/government organisations, the government’s decision in the matter was still awaited.

“The committee is of the view that audit of spectrum is essential for detecting under-utilisation of this precious natural resource and also to assess the adequacy and operating effectiveness on management control framework in order to make its utilisation more efficient. It is deplorable that the Department has neglected such an important recommendation of TRAI…”

On spectrum pricing, the committee found that there were fundamental differences between the versions of telcos and TRAI on fixing of spectrum prices in India, and suggested that there was a need to review the spectrum-pricing policy.

The DoT had informed the committee it had not specifically banned any company, including Huawei and ZTE, and was closely watching 5G development around the world and would take an appropriate decision after evaluating all the pros and cons on the 5G ecosystem including social, economic and security considerations.

The committee also expressed concern that 4G spectrum had still not been allocated to BSNL/MTNL, even though the Cabinet, in its meeting held on October 23, 2019, had approved the administrative allotment of spectrum for 4G services through capital infusion.

“The committee observes that the revival of BSNL/MTNL is critical for domestic telecom manufacturing industries as they are the only ones purchasing Indian manufactured goods, and they have been implementing important schemes in remote rural areas and LWE affected areas. In such circumstances, the survival of BSNL/MTNL is in the national interest,” it said, adding that the DoT should take adequate measures to ensure that 5G spectrum be allocated to BSNL/MTNL at the same time as private players, so that they are in a position to compete and stay relevant in the market.

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