A robust telecom data network running on 5G technologies could provide solution for most of the challenges arising out of the coronavirus lockdown that necessitates people to increase their digital interaction. But the very impact of COVID-19 has not only postponed the launch of the next generation technology in India, but has also sparked anti-5G propaganda in the UK and New Zealand.
Perks of 5G
Take for example a truck carrying vital medical equipment which has to cross several state borders and faces red tape at each point where local authorities decide whether it is carrying essential goods or not on the basis of their whims. Here, a simple OTP (One Time Password) could get the vehicle through checkposts if we had a nationwide data network with the capacity to enable robust applications to connect multiple systems.
In fact 5G can make availing services like telemedicine, remote operation of logistic networks, online classes (for a large number of students), and work-from-home facilities, easier with just a mobile phone, even if you are sitting in a remote village like Meghalaya’s Mawlynnong.
While it is possible to run many of these services on broadband WiFi networks, especially optic fibre connections that run on fixed cables, 5G technology enables reliable and fast connectivity on wireless mobile networks that are accessible in remote areas too.
So, without a laptop or desktop, a student in Kargil (Ladakh) can connect to his class through a mobile phone application and prevent his studies from being hampered by the ongoing lockdown using 5G; or a senior citizen from Barmer (Rajasthan) can consult a doctor in Jaipur face-to-face without actually moving out of his locality once the next generation technology is launched.
Marred by unfounded rumours
However, 5G ironically has been misunderstood and become a subject of hate in several countries, especially the UK and New Zealand due to wild rumours that have linked it to the spread of COVID-19.
In fact, Facebook recently had to remove a group that encouraged upload of visuals showing destruction of 5G telecom towers in UK. Reports of telecom engineers threatened in Birmingham triggered alarm bells in the UK even as incidents of people unleashing violence on telecom towers emerged from various places including Liverpool.
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In New Zealand, Twitter users created a flutter by pouring hate against 5G and linking it to the COVID-19 lockdown announced in the country since March 25.
According to rumours, the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan followed close on the heels of 5G being launched in the Chinese city that was the initial epicentre of the disease.
Delayed in India
Due to the fragile financial health of the telecom sector in India, rollout of 5G has been delayed, leaving no room for rumour mongering on social media. Among the only players left in the field, Airtel and Jio are working on the launch of 5G and Vodafone is also likely to follow suit if the Centre’s efforts to provide relief to the sector succeed.
Private sector players plan to compete with one another on the 5G frontier while the state-owned BSNL-MTNL duo is looking up to the Department of Telecommunications to outline its strategy for the next generation technology. An interesting aspect of the 5G launch in India could be the development of indigenous technology and hardware by Reliance-owned Jio for its 5G network.
If this attempt by Jio works out, 5G may herald another chapter of cheaper services from the company disrupting the telecom sector all over again. While the lockdown has spurred demand for telecom data services, the overall slump in the economy may further delay 5G launch in India.
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At a time when the Supreme Court has asked defaulting telecom providers to pay the accumulated dues of ₹1.47 lakh crore, the situation is not conducive for robust 5G spectrum auction that was slated for this year. It may take another year for 5G to become a reality in India.
Tremendous potential for the service sector
Despite the challenging environment, telecom sector in India is keen on 5G due to its tremendous potential even though there are voices demanding increased use of existing 4G networks rather than opting for more investments for 5G at this stage. Internet of things, over-the-top applications, machine learning, remote-controlled transport and comprehensive digital services are some of the things that 5G can enable.
For instance, in the current COVID-19 context, conferences can be held on digital platforms rather than organising a gathering of hundreds. Entertainment can stream wherever the customer is and music concerts or sports events can go live digitally without a hitch.
Operation of drones will be safer
The other major benefit will be operation of drones over long distances that requires a reliable mobile network that 5G can provide. This will be especially useful in a situation where medicine or equipment has to be delivered to an area isolated due to disease outbreak or natural calamity. Similar will be the benefit when driverless cars are allowed to operate as all such operations require telecom networks that operate without any interruption and are ideally suited for data transmission.
Even the existing services like digital payments, online orders and processing of permits that are required in a lockdown situation will be easier to use with 5G technology and cost of such services will play a key role in making it accessible to the masses for a leap in communications as well as digitalisation of a huge range of services.
Japan, Korea show the way
Countries like South Korea, Japan and the US have already launched 5G networks and it is estimated that more than half of the world’s mobile users will get access to the next generation technology within a couple of years. South Korea already has a million 5G subscribers and China has also launched the technology in many parts of the country.
In the US, multiple operators like T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon have started providing 5G services while Bell and Telus of Canada have also got into action. NTT DoCoMo in Japan and Telstra in Australia are among the 5G players along with Hutch and China Mobile in Hong Kong.
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That 5G can enable tracking of patients and their contacts in a COVID-19 like situation is another benefit that can help in tackling pandemics in future and help in lockdowns that have put the lid on normal life in countries like India, Iran, China, Italy, Spain and Singapore. Even after the lockdowns come to an end, many services may be accessed more online due to lower costs as compared to physical transactions that involve higher spend on human resources.
Huawei security row may wither
Apart from the manufacture of hardware in India to generate jobs that are being lost in a big way due to COVID-19, indigenous development of 5G hardware and technologies in India may also end the controversy over security concerns links to Chinese giant Huawei that is one of the major vendors, competing with global players like Ericsson. Many countries like the US and Canada have blocked Huawei due to fears over data security and India is also wary of the concerns highlighted by these countries.
Airtel had carried out 5G trials in partnership with Huawei, but gave it up after security concerns were raised. While the last word on the Huawei data security issue in India is yet to be heard, the success of Jio in developing indigenous hardware as well as software solutions might play a major role in how the controversy plays out.