Where do we stand?
Policy blocks and poor vision have held up 5G in India, while China’s breakthroughs are helping to set global standards
On October 1 India launched 5G services. It was a low-key affair even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi was launching it. Perhaps it came after 70-odd countries had deployed it in close to 2,000 cities since 2019 when South Korea kicked off the new era of connectivity.
Attempts to get 5G going in India have been botched by muddled policies. The biggest bottleneck was the high reserve prices for airwave sales.
The 700 megahertz band, which is needed for 5G technology was priced so high that it did not receive any bids in the March auction and even in the recent auction, only one company, market leader Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Jio, has been able to cough up the asking price despite a scaling down of rates by the government.
Telecom companies are bleeding after the cut-throat tariff war unleashed by Reliance Jio. Most operators have gone bankrupt and quit or have gone in for mergers.
Then, of course, there is the problem of poor infrastructure; India simply does not have an adequate fibre network.
What is 5G and why are countries racing to have it? 5G is the fifth generation mobile network, the latest global wireless standard which is not just about multi-gigabit speeds.
It offers a new kind of network that can connect virtually everyone and everything together from mobiles and other devices to objects and machines. The massive network capacity it can usher in means there will be more reliability and almost no gap time between the time data is sent and received.
All this is not possible with 4G, which is the highest-speed network available in the country. And while the Modi government was sorting out the policy tangles here, a clutch of global companies, mostly Chinese, have captured the intellectual property rights on 5G and even 6G, which is still a decade away.
There is a tough battle out there for supremacy in the new era networks and India has not made even a nick on the global patents landscape.
Why do intellectual property rights (IPR) on the new generation networks matter? Experts say the next industrial revolution will see increasing technological convergence as connectivity is integrated into mechanical products, such as automobiles which appears to be the industry that is most talked about in this context.
Right now, the connectivity modules in cars may not be significant but those who are looking ahead believe that the connected vehicles of the future will transform the way we look at transportation as a whole.
Gradually, 5G technology will also have an impact across industry verticals which use smart technology and also encompass everything from smart homes to smart medical devices. That's the future that is being outlined for us by tech wizards.
What this implies is that industries where connectivity matters will be relying hugely on standardised and patented standards. Standard essential patents, or SEPS, are those protecting an industry's core technology, "the standard that the entire industry must use in order to continue to innovate in meaningful ways. Standard essential patents are, in fact, essential to the standard."
Whoever holds 5G SEPS would be sitting on a gold mine because they can demand lucrative royalties for licensing them. The Chinese appear to have the largest number of patents related to 5G and 6G. Analysis conducted by different IP and market experts such as IPlytics, Cyber Creative Institute and Statista shows that China is way ahead in this regard.
Its flag-bearer is Huawei which holds the largest number of 5G patents. In every segment, the Chinese multinational dominates the IP landscape, most significantly in standard-setting which is done in open, consensus-based, standards-development organisations.
The 5G standard is specified in international meetings where companies submit technical contributions that all members discuss and then cast their votes on. It turns out that Huawei followed by Ericsson of Sweden and Finland's Nokia are the leading standards developers accounting for more than 55 per cent of all approved and agreed 5G contributions.
A day after 5G was launched, Union telecom minister Ashwini Vaishnaw claimed that Indian developers had many of the technologies required for the development of 6G and that the country would be a leader in the next-generation network for which they hold patents.
Politicians are known to be casual in making such claims but since the assertion was made at the India Mobile Congress one should perhaps take it seriously. Apparently, IIT-Hyderabad, which is heading India's 6G project, has been granted some of the patents that will help set 6G standards.
If that is the case it is, indeed, cause for celebration. Perhaps the institute will reveal more details of its breakthroughs in due course. Perhaps India will surpass China's record in the coming years even if it seems a tough challenge at the moment.
The latest research by Tokyo-based research company Cyber Creative Institute shows that Chinese companies and universities account for the biggest chunk of 6G patent applications — not patents granted on which there is little information — globally. The Japanese institute analysed around 20,000 patent applications for nine core 6G technologies, including communications, quantum technology, base stations and artificial intelligence before releasing its findings.
The Chinese, it noted, had stayed ahead despite the sanctions imposed on Huawei Technologies by the United States in 2019 by mobilising its state-run companies and universities to work on 6G technologies.
Crucially, it made 6G a priority under its Made in China 2025 project. The result is that China tops the 6G list with 40.3 per cent of the global patent filings while the US follows with 35.2 per cent and Japan with 9.9 per cent. As we understand from the experts, countries with a higher number of patent claims have a bigger say in setting industry standards.
Some of China's achievements are dramatic. A Nikkei report said the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China had successfully launched the world's first 6G satellite in November 2021, noting that the US ban had in no way stalled the ability of Chinese companies to build next-generation base stations or make cutting-edge smartphones as the Americans had hoped.
More impressive is the role China is playing in taking 5G networks to other regions. It is providing financial and technical help to build such networks in Africa and West Asia.
Perhaps, India, too, will be doing all this in the coming decades. DTE
Views expressed are personal