India’s 5G dream hit by turf war as ISRO cuts telcos’ power supply

The country’s 5G dream seems to have got grounded even before it could take off as a fallout of a turf war between the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and the department of telecommunications (DoT), in which the former has gained an upper hand.

The space agency’s view has prevailed and the government’s submission for the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) has accordingly agreed to reduce the power level of the 5G base stations in the 26 GHz spectrum band to eightieth of conventional mobile base stations — the power level of conventional base station is 40 watt whereas the power of 5G stations in this band has been reduced to 0.5

Reducing the power limit of base stations will exponentially increase the cost of 5G services as the operators will have to put up significantly large number of base stations compared with a conventional mobile system. It will also decrease the quality due to difficulty in finding space for these sites.

If this stand gets finalised, the only spectrum available for telecom operators for 5G would be in 3.5 Ghz where there’s not sufficient airwaves, and on top of it, it has been priced too high by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai).

The 5G bands in India are 700 MHz, 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz. The reason that 26 GHz band is the most important is because it enables very high 5G speeds as it has a large quantum of spectrum (over 3 GHz — 10-15 times more than 3.5 GHz).

It enables to fully unlock the potential of 5G technology since one can pack hundreds of antennas into the 5G device, which is not possible in lower frequency bands as the size of these antennas is directly proportional to wavelength (lower spectrum bands have large wavelengths). Hence, unless the 26 GHz band is opened up and assigned, India will not be able to leverage the real value that 5G technology.

With the Isro backed submissions, which limit the propagation characteristics of the 26 GHz spectrum, for the financially stressed domestic telecom industry, it’s as good as bidding goodbye to 5G.

The reason behind the turf war which has led to this bizarre outcome is that currently, there’s 3.25 GHz spectrum available in the 26 GHz band and both the Isro and DoT have set their sights on it. The limiting of power proposal by Isro is on the assumption that if the same is not done then the telecom signals will interfere with their satellites.

However, independent technology experts FE spoke to said the requirement of department of space (under which Isro falls) is limited to only 350 MHz (mere 10% of the total) but by reducing the power level uniformly, Isro is blocking the full band. Instead, the solution could be to not auction the portion of spectrum required by Isro, and remove the power restriction from the rest of the spectrum, thereby creating a win-win situation.

Experts also point out that the real problem could be lobbying by a prominent Chinese gear maker which is a major player in 5G but does not have equipment in the 26 GHz band. The two countries where this manufacturer operates in the 5G space are China and Russia which are focusing on lower spectrum bands for deployment of 5G.

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