Democratising connectivity through smart regulatory policy

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Rajesh Gangadhar, CTO access solutions at STL, writes about the capex demands of 5G

5G promises to change the world of connectivity forever. The advantages will benefit all nations but making this a reality requires a sufficient and affordable spectrum. In some countries, this is taking time to materialise. India is one of them.

In India, there has been much talk about 5G spectrum auctions, but the hefty costs associated with coverage and capacity bands are a barrier for operators. Likely, the financial health of the larger telco companies and stringent regulations are further hindering progress.

India climbs the curve

There is always opportunity in adversity. The delays in India have given operators and technology companies the chance to assess the landscape and evaluate new product concepts. Investments have been made in open networking-based solutions such as open RAN disaggregation, and in software platforms that can run on this architecture. This is bringing network intelligence to the edge and, thereby, guaranteeing better performance. This time of preparation has enabled cell site infrastructure to be made ready for 5G, and this means that transformation, once the spectrum is available, could be very rapid.

We live in a global village and India, along with every other country, has much to gain from the worldwide spectrum allocation for 5G and the synergies achieved through common spectrum bands. The technologies, products and solutions that Indian companies are investing in are equally relevant and viable in the UK and across the world. STL’s recents partnership with Openreach, the UK’s largest digital network business, to provide optical cables for its new ultra-fast, ultra-reliable full-fibre broadband network is testament to this.

The most important factor in delivering fibre networks is that they allow a rich array of features, services and applications to be provided to the customer, regardless of where they are located. Fully virtualised, open and disaggregated solutions that enable operators to deliver FTTx offerings that allow programmability and bring SDN/NFV concepts to realisation in last mile fixed access are essential.

Democratising spectrum allocations

What can we learn from the past? Democratising spectrum allocation while easing the regulatory regime is one lesson, and another is to lower the barrier to new technology adoption and roll-out.

For example, in Europe, operators in the early 2000s overspent to acquire 3G licences. They absorbed tremendous debt only to find they had nothing left to spend on the network roll-out. The result was that the roll-out of 3G was heavily delayed. If governments want to bring digital transformation to the masses, they must democratise the spectrum rather than forcing operators to spend capital excessively on spectrum acquisition.

Similarly, addressing excessive right-of-way costs for laying fibre will expedite fibre roll-out, bringing the necessary bandwidth connectivity to the network edge. There is high motivation and impetus in both Europe (where there is a technology transformation cycle from copper lines to fibre in play) and India (where there is a paucity of both copper and fibre lines) to lay fibre in urban, suburban and even underserved communities. State government and local municipalities could work on a framework for fibre routes and offer incentives to operators to drive deep fiberisation in local communities.

In the US and Germany, the mid-band spectrum (3.5 GHz band) has been specifically allocated to encourage private LTE and 5G networks, which is spurring an entire innovation vertical previously untapped. Large industrial campuses can operate their own “private” network with customised services and applications. In the US specifically, the Federal Communications Commission has been prolific in opening up large swathes of the mid-band and mmWave spectrum to drive 5G innovation.

With lower spectrum acquisition costs, new spectrum bands and standardised right-of-way costs, operators can invest in services and capabilities, while governments benefit from the increase in business productivity and GDP growth. The pandemic has exposed the dire need to bring broadband connectivity to everyone globally, regardless of their economic strata. In fact, it is time that broadband connectivity be considered a basic utility – just as water and electricity have been for several decades.

Governments must also act as an enabler of change by creating vehicles for investments in a burgeoning start-up ecosystem, driving R&D and innovative product development, especially in a country like India. The benefits of this approach will be to incentivise telecom operators and product companies to innovate and deliver applications and services to consumers that can, at times like these, be life-saving.