NEW DELHI: Business not geo-politics. This was the mantra Jay Chen, CEO of Huawei India extolled at the annual India Mobile Congress (IMC) 2019 in the Capital. But the recently concluded informal summit of Prime Minister Modi and President Xi, along with the U.S.’s continuing determination to get all ‘friendly’ countries to blacklist Huawei over privacy concerns, ensured that Chen – whether he liked it or not – had to walk a diplomatic tightrope at the conference.
Chen said that while he hoped that his company could ‘play a part in the next level of India’s 5G journey’, he also implied – not so subtly – that it could not complete its 5G journey without Huawei.
‘Out of the 40 5G commercial networks in the world 28 of them have been powered by Huawei,’ said the Huawei India CEO. The message was not lost on anyone.
The growing desire by Huawei, and by extension China, to win over India is not difficult to understand. India is currently the world’s second biggest wireless market and is all set to hold 5G user equipment trials, which, according to Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, will be before March next year.
Though, the government’s nod to allow Huawei to display its products at IMC 2019 was seen by the company and industry watchers of the industry as a ‘positive’ sign, the minister made it clear in his address that India was still keeping an open mind.
Stating that the government’s goal was to ensure ‘broadband for all by 2022’, Prasad said, ‘We want to develop India to become the major data economy of the world but at the same time we do not wish to compromise on the data sovereignty of India.’ The message again was not lost on anyone.
India is a lucrative market for any telecom operator. According to figures released by the telecom ministry, the country has 1.18 billion phone users and 630 million internet users. But the absence of the two titans of telecom – Mukesh Ambani and Sunil Mittal, at one of Asia biggest telecom conferences, raised eyebrows and suggested unhappiness within the industry. Telecom players have been complaining that lack of reforms and a regulatory framework has crippled the industry. According to an India Ratings report, the debt of the top three telecom players alone stands at Rs 3.9 lakh crore.
The debt crisis and the uncertainty towards Huawei, is prompting calls by some industry players for a clearer roadmap from the government. This, they believe, is essential if India is to remain in the 5G race. Already, some observers believe that through lack of doing so the country is losing out to others, especially China, in the 5G race.
China has created ‘smart cities’ across the country making it more able to implement cutting-edge technologies. As the Huawei stall showed, from facial recognition techniques allowing you to check-in at the airport, to driverless cars, to better dealing with essential services such as urban traffic and healthcare; more smart cities are what will define a country as a ‘global brand.’ And some people – Sunil Mittal being one among them – believe that this will not be possible for India without 5G and Huawei.
Others though believe that the ‘China’ comparison may not best serve India’s interests. As Aruna Sundararajan, former secretary, Department of Telecommunications said, ‘If you look at 5G deployment across the world, you will see that what really matters is that you come up with what makes sense for your own development and growth challenges. While most countries have gone in for initial 5G deployment, I don’t think they have figured out which use case makes the most sense.’
Sundararajan added that it was imperative that India should go by its experience rather than be in a rush to be first with the technology. ‘If you look at how India traditionally rolled out 3G and 4G, we were not the first to do so. However, once we began to roll it out, we have seen one of the fastest rates of migration to these technologies in the world. So, two things matter. One is to get it directionally right and the other is to do it in a manner that is most sustainable. We have a roadmap that is India specific and I think we now need to move on.’
Add to that, the sense within sections of government that India should emphasise the indigenous approach to 5G. This reflects the demand from the local industry that on 5G, India is on par with the rest of the world since these are all new or emerging technologies. There are a clutch of Indian firms that are engaged in 5G R&D and also in developing 5G systems and platforms for overseas clients. All they are looking forward to is Make in India 5G!