Not Yet Buffer-Free! While the World’s Switching to 5G, India Might Still be Stuck With 4G


Not Yet Buffer-Free! While the World’s Switching to 5G, India Might Still be Stuck With 4G

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

One of the points of pride for India this decade has been its mobile success story. It’s helped our internet penetration rate grow from five per cent to almost 50 per cent. Not only are we the most ravenous mobile data users (9.8 GB/month!) but will continue to be. Smartphones sales have never looked back. From honchos of social media platforms to CEOs of ecommerce companies to content creators, everyone has been stunned and attracted by India’s digital democratisation.

Alas, that might change – or at least have some brakes applied. Because India is horribly unprepared for the advent of 5G technology, and risks being left behind.

It’s worth clarifying before we go further that 5G internet is more than buffer-free Netflix and less choppy WhatsApp calls. While improved speeds are a definite plus, the technology promises more than just a faster 4G – it’ll make the internet instant, and possibly ubiquitous, in the way electricity is. The “instantness” with which your bulb lights up when you press the switch belies the iterations in technology that helped us get there. Think of all the industries, necessities and luxuries we have today that have been built on the backbone of electricity being instant (or latency-free, as the geeks would say).

5G has the capability of making the internet that way: So latency-free that you don’t need to think about it unless it shuts down. Just imagine what all could be built on top of that.

Actually, many are imagining, and succeeding – remote surgeries. Autonomous vehicles (trying running a grid of cloud-based, high-volume, high-speed vehicles on a network that struggles to stream Spotify). Virtual reality gaming. Teleconferencing.

American telecommunications giant Verizon estimates that by 2035, 5G “will enable $12.3 trillion of global economic output and support 22 million jobs worldwide.” Gosh. It’s like it’s a whole new industrial revolution (probably why it’s being called the fourth one).

The possibilities are endless and here’s where I need to break the bad news. India has a problem.

5G has the capability of making the internet so latency-free that you don’t need to think about it unless it shuts down.

The US carriers are rolling out nationwide 5G. Various observers, including telecom equipment maker Qualcomm’s president says China will be the leader in developing and using the technology. What’s more, as it spars with the US for global dominance, China is also likely to export its version of the internet to its “infrastructure colonies” all over Asia and Africa such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Ethiopia (that humongous Belt and Road Initiative ain’t no charity, folks). And of course, Europe has done enough trials to launch in major cities by mid-2020.

Back home, a combination of sketchy rules and fines, corruption and financial tattery means that our players are more focused on survival. When your foot gets fractured during a jog, your immediate thought isn’t signing up for a triathlon.

Heck, our telecom industry is still reeling under fees from the last spectrum allocation. When Vodafone-Idea (a merger between a global telecom giant and one of India’s most successful legacy companies) says it might need to shut shop, you know there won’t be too many Indian executives googling “How to buy 5G spectrum”.

It’s not just me speculating. There are reports saying that telcos are likely to look at 5G only in five years. That’s 2025. An eternity in today’s technology era. (A reminder that just five years ago, the Zoozoos were still singing songs about 3G in India).

This is sad in many ways. Firstly, 5G technology could give access to underserved regions around the country, truly democratising the internet to many who would benefit from it (even if only for entertainment). Inconsistent coverage could stymie development of cloud-connected infrastructure, and we don’t leverage the best possible tech at a time we desperately need it and entrepreneurs are bursting with ideas.

There are reports saying that telcos are likely to look at 5G only in five years. An eternity in today’s technology era.

The last IT revolution around the world left India (and other regions) doing back-office work instead of innovation and once again, we risk the same. Silicon Valley’s endless reservoir of creativity will keep America ahead. China’s sheer grit and ingenuity will power it through, and it’s already a leader in AI and Blockchain. What’s more, Chinese companies like Huawei are at the forefront of 5G infrastructure – something that benefits that country, but not so much those who have at best a just-here-for-photo-ops relationship with them (er, us).

Even in the worst case that only Reliance Jio survives the ongoing telecom crisis and is as 5G-ready as it claims to be, it’s hard to see even Mukeshbhai ponying up the money (or motivation) needed as returns in this sector have proven to be so hard to come by. Which leaves hopes lying on the current government. Given their preference of hubris over fact, it’s hard to see them bothering to do anything meaningful – especially when they can continue to blame the Congress (the 2G scam is still milkable) and build statues to distract people when their Tiktoks aren’t loading. Throw in a few “internet is corrupting young minds” statements to buy some more time.

All in all, the future of 5G for India does not look good and it’s a dashed shame. Don’t take my word for it. I’m sure we’ll have lots of videos made on it soon, but they might take a while to buffer.