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Looking ahead in India: 5G, open RAN and fiberization

Last year will always be sadly remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic. With signs in early 2021 that vaccines might restore some normality, Light Reading has looked at some of the trends that could affect India's telecom industry this year.

5G launch (hopefully!!)

India is likely to witness some firm steps on the road to 5G in 2021. Spectrum auctions are due and some keenly awaited 5G trials will soon take place.

Jio, India's largest service provider, has already announced plans to launch 5G in the coming year. Even if this happens, though, rollout will probably be limited to a few areas of the country or be focused on the enterprise sector. Most industry experts believe 5G will not be widely available until 2022.

Jio is determined to launch this year because it hopes to sell its in-house 5G technology in the global market. Any further delay would threaten its ambitions as prospective clients choose alternative providers.

On the 5G devices front, Jio this year plans to introduce a 5G smartphone that costs less than 5,000 Indian rupees ($68). Its goal is to lure subscribers in higher-income segments from rival operators Airtel and Vodafone Idea.

Airtel, meanwhile, thinks India is still not ready for 5G due to a lack of viable use cases. Despite that concern, it is also collaborating with Indian device makers on the development of affordable 5G phones.

Network upgrades: Open RAN and fiberization

There is clear interest in the adoption of open RAN among Indian operators, which is likely to gather pace in 2021.

Jio's 5G solution is believed to be based on open RAN technology, while Airtel recently hosted India's first plugfest event for the O-RAN Alliance, an industry group developing open RAN specifications. Airtel also claims to have deployed open RAN software developed by Altiostar, a US company, in several cities. As for Vodafone Idea, it has turned to Mavenir, an Altiostar rival, as an open RAN partner.

"We are committed to evolving our network through an open architecture and are delighted to partner with the O-RAN community," said Randeep Sekhon, Airtel's chief technology officer, in a press release issued by the company.

Besides testing open RAN technology, operators will take more interest in the rollout of fiber as the move toward a 5G deployment. High-speed fixed-line infrastructure has become more important in the post-consolidation era amid a growing emphasis on quality of services.

Growing engagement with startups

Telcos engaged with startups more in 2020 than during previous years, and there is likely to be even greater collaboration in 2021. Interest in artificial intelligence prompted Airtel to acquire strategic stakes in several AI-focused startups last year, including Voicezen, Spectacom, Vahan and Waybeo in 2020.

Reliance Industries, the parent company of Jio, has taken a keen interest in the startup community, with Chairman Mukesh Ambani inviting companies to form partnerships with his business. Flush with funds, Jio seems likely to buy startups or make strategic investments in them in 2021.

Startup expertise could be critical for operators as they attempt to build capabilities in areas including AI and augmented and virtual reality. Startups could also provide access to vital intellectual property and support a government policy of making India more self-reliant.

Focus on satellite connectivity

Interest in using satellites to provide connectivity in urban and rural areas is likely to grow in 2021.

Together with the UK government, Bharti Global, the parent company of Airtel, won a bid to acquire a satellite operator called OneWeb that hopes to set up ground stations in India that would receive signals from a constellation of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Airtel has also sought the cooperation of India's Space Research Organization for the delivery of high-speed broadband services by early 2022.

US billionaire and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has also flagged interest in launching satellite services in India this year. Spurred by these initiatives, the use of satellite technology could help to address India's digital divide.

Hiring to pick up in 2021

The focus on procuring gear from Indian manufacturers, along with fiberization and an upcoming 5G launch, should create telecom jobs in 2021. Government initiatives, including the decision by state-backed BSNL to use domestic gear makers for its 4G network, will support that growth. The industry will need people with skills in fiber deployment, 5G testing, transmission, open RAN, the Internet of Things (IoT) and wireless equipment.

Hiring did pick up during the second half of 2020 once the industry began to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Job portals including Monster and Times Jobs reported a year-on-year increase in hiring in November and December.


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