The ping pong of 5G telecoms lobbying, from Geneva to Delhi and back

If the 5G in telecommunications was a five-act play, the first act unfolded two years ago when US President Donald Trump rallied the developed world around banning Huawei Technologies, especially its 5G tech. 

The second act is being enacted now as countries permit, one by one, the Chinese telecoms vendor to supply its 5G gear for the new network roll-out, pilot or otherwise. In December 2019, India allowed Huawei to participate in 5G trials, too. 

However, this act has a sub-plot to it. And it’s playing out within the closed doors of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) in Delhi. 

Around this time last year, the Indian standards body, Telecommunications Standards Development Society, India, or TSDSI, proposed a radio interface technology (RIT) to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). (We wrote about it here.)

Later in the year, in December, the ITU accepted it as a candidate RIT—proposals under consideration for additional features to telecom standards. The TSDSI tech is a new modification to the radio signal—the information carrier in telecommunications—which can enhance the signal transmission range of a base station. India wants to apply this technology for wider coverage at low speeds. This is ideal for rural India, which certainly needs high-speed broadband but not necessarily in high-speed vehicles. The term for this is Low Mobility Large Cell (LMLC). 

Starting February, the remaining steps for including the Indian RIT as part of the 5G global standards—International Mobile Telecommunications-2020— will begin. Independent groups will now evaluate this technology. As an Indian official says, “Quarterfinals are over, semi-finals will begin in Geneva this month.” 

The so-called match is between global telecoms vendors. Specifically, Nokia, Ericsson, Qualcomm on one side, and TSDSI on the other, alone at the negotiating table because there’s no Indian equipment company big enough to wield commercial clout internationally. The Indian proposal makes use of the 3rd Generation Partnership Product (3GPP) framework, a global standardisation body for wireless standards that is dominated by telecoms vendors. Consequently, TSDSI has asked it to reserve certain bits so that the RIT is harmonised. 

In other words, make the Indian tech interoperable with 3GPP specifications, which all equipment makers use to build their products, be it chipsets, smartphones, base stations, or modems. 

Soon after the RIT was accepted, causing much “drama” on the ITU floor, a 3GPP group headed by Balazs Bertenyi of Nokia shot a letter to TSDSI  saying it wasn’t possible for 3GPP to “retroactively ensure compatibility with modifications which were done outside of 3GPP.” 

It was followed by another missive last month, on 23 January. This time from Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) to DoT secretary Anshu Prakash. The letter, seen by The Ken, reiterated it was not possible “to accept the TSDSI request [for bits] that conflicts with the evolution of 3GPP specification”. 

In telecommunications, bits are units of information. Anyone using a telecom standard will reorganise the bits from time to time. It’s like a user reorganising files on her computer. TSDSI is asking to reserve a few bits for interoperability and seamless roaming of its technology across various handsets and base stations. 

But the telecoms overlords who have traditionally dominated proprietary tech development are iffy. “It’s like you are building a house [and] your neighbour comes and says, ‘keep aside a room for me,’ even though he hasn’t contributed a single rupee towards building it. This is what TSDSI is telling 3GPP. But 3GPP has refused, saying, ‘you have worked in isolation, outside of our framework’,” says a senior executive of one of the vendors opposed to India’s moves. He doesn’t want to be named because he’s not the authorised spokesperson.  

Still, some sources say, a few chipset makers have already incorporated this tech in their 5G offerings for smartphones. Hedging their strategy in case DoT makes the tech mandatory for India. The lobbying chops of both sides are currently being tested at the DoT. 

Trespassing neighbour or a legit family member?

Calling the TSDSI an infringing ‘neighbour’ may be imaginative but not correct. The Indian standards body, only five years old, is one of six partner organisations of 3GPP. 

“TSDSI is an organisational partner of 3GPP. An ever-increasing number of TSDSI members participate in 3GPP standards group and actively collaborate with others on a host of aspects of the emerging standards,” says Bhaskar Ramamurthi, chairman of TSDSI and director of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. He says the reason the Indian team had to go to the ITU with their proposal is because a specificand keyIndian requirement in 5G has not been adequately addressed at 3GPP, despite Indian members’ best efforts 

This is how it went down: 

  • India had to water down the cell size—the area a base station can cover—in LMLC to a 3 km radius so that it was compatible with the existing modulation formats 5G can meet. India wanted a 4-5 km cell radius, more realistic for Indian rural requirements, but couldn’t muster support within 3GPP. 
  • Then TSDSI was forced to make this tech optional—not mandatory, as initially desired—in the global standards. 
  • India finally chose to adopt a modulation format which allows this tech to be implemented by “very modest firmware and software changes” in the handset chip and base station hardware. This would mean no cost or complexity added to the implementation.

As things stand today, the TSDSI tech works by itself, but it is not compatible with 3GPP. So, India needs the bits extension to ensure interoperability. Bhaskar says the extension can be folded back in the simplest manner into the 3GPP standard at a later date if other countries find this tech relevant and want to use it. “There are other ways to enable roaming, but bit extension is the neatest,” he says. 

TSDSI has requested for a few reserved bits, but it can also make do with just one reserved bit. It does not appear that setting aside this bit for the TSDSI extension will lead to any measurable reduction in signalling efficiency as the two letters mentioned above indicate, say the Indian telecom standards developers. “If the reserved extension bit is folded back into 3GPP in future, even this marginal ‘loss’ of efficiency will disappear. Minor as it is, it is a notional loss of efficiency.” 

According to two sources in the industry, Taiwanese semiconductor company MediaTek, China’s Huawei, and American chipset maker Qualcomm have incorporated this tech into their chipsets for 5G smartphones. MediaTek and Huawei did not respond to specific questions sent on 30 January. Sources within Qualcomm neither confirmed nor denied it. 

Speed matters

The GSA letter of 23 January calls the Indian team back to the 3GPP negotiating table. This is strange because India has already wasted more than two years, during which the telecom standards body released two sets of 5G specifications. Therefore, TSDSI is hoping to get its tech evaluated in the meetings starting 19 February in Geneva. 

There’s no time to lose. Later this year, the gold standard for 5G, the IMT-2020, will be released. TSDSI expects its regional standard to be part of it, albeit as an optional feature. India can then plan to make this tech mandatory for local use even as 5G trials begin in the next few weeks. 

As reported, the key requirement for these trials is that all equipment be 5G-exclusive. The vendors and operators involved cannot use the existing 4G network and IT infrastructure. Equipment vendors, who are likely bearing the entire cost of the trial, will have to import standalone gear for the trials—gear that will commercially hit the market only later this year. The cost of a single trial can go up to Rs 80 crore (~$11 million)

Pushing TSDSI’s tech to a later cycle of 3GPP discussions, which comes only every two-three years, would mean these vendors are set free from any likely Indian government requirement of incorporating LMLC into their chipsets and base stations. Particularly because both vendors and operators have to look at three possible use cases—rural, semi-urban and urban. LMLC fits squarely into the rural category.  

Vendors and operators are currently lobbying the DoT for flexibility on the use cases.

“Every perspective has a valid view, we are looking into it,” said a senior bureaucrat at DoT, refusing to give details or be named because he’s not ‘supposed to talk to the media’. 

In the relentless negotiations, nothing short of Machiavellian if you consider the depth of contempt for TSDSI tech and the breadth of support the two sides are accumulating, there are two central concerns. One, if the Indian government makes it mandatory, there is no “business case for us” using this technology, say vendors. Two, if the Indian team insists on forcing its intellectual property on the vendors and makes them pay royalty, there will “be no meaningful benefit for us, and we’ll be politically sandboxed”. 

The former is likely because India needs it; the latter quite unlikely because, as one government official close to the discussions said, “Indian academics haven’t even thought about monetising their intellectual property (IP), and this clause is nowhere in the documents.” 

Of double-speak & doubled past

Historically, the multinational vendors speak in two voices—one in DoT, when asked to support TSDSI, and one in their national delegations at the ITU or 3GPP where they oppose TSDSI. (The telecom service providers, meanwhile, run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.) 

For instance, in September 2019, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro) satellite navigation system, NavIC, was opposed tooth and nail in the 3GPP, just before the telecom standards body was about to release specs for 5G. Qualcomm, say officials, was at the forefront of the opposition. 

Somehow, after the Indian machinery swung into action, the approval came. Soon after, at the Indian Mobile Congress on 14 October in Delhi, Qualcomm hogged the spotlight with Isro. It announced its new chipset platform that would support and increase adoption of NavIC. Qualcomm, which sells more smartphone chips than any other vendor in the world, even showcased the first-ever NavIC demonstration using its Snapdragon mobile platform at the event. 

NavIC is the regional satellite system which, post-3GPP approval, will have wider commercial adoption as it will be integrated with 4G, 5G, and internet of things (IoT) technology. After initial opposition, vendors are now embracing it, including those like Korean electronics major Samsung.

TSDSI is viewing its regional 5G telecom standard in the same light—as a pipe cleaner for India. Technically speaking, its request for bits, rather ‘a bit’, is not as bizarre as it is made out to be. People in the industry say bits will be required for different purposes under 5G. Different verticals like transport, robotics, healthcare, industrial automation—will require bits for their particular purpose. Such is the nature of 5G, and everyone gets that.

Yet the negotiations are getting harder. Over time, the spirit of cooperation in the world of standards has been overshadowed by the spirit of commercial interests and IP preponderance. 

It will unfold once again this month at the ITU—the rising action of the third act. The Bard wouldn’t have approved of this drama, with the acts being written in real-time. But such is telecoms. High on stakes, high on lobbying.  

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