India has gotten its biggest 5G push, yet. At the Annual General Meeting (AGM) keynote yesterday, Reliance Industries confirmed that they are working on an indigenous 5G mobile network solution which will be ready for trials next year. At the same time, Reliance Jio also confirmed that they will make a push for truly affordable 5G smartphones in the country and will be working on an Android based customized operating system for these phones. These two announcements have brought 5G back into the limelight, and puts India alongside countries including South Korea, China, United Kingdom and the United States in developing and deploying 5G technology.
5G is gaining traction around the world, and the push by Reliance Jio was essential as India not only plays catch-up in terms of deployment of 5G networks, but also leads the way in 5G network development. According to network testing provider VIAVI, as of January this year, 5G networks were available in 378 cities across 34 countries. As of that time, South Korea led the way with coverage in 85 cities, China followed with 5G networks in 57 cities, US with 50 5G ready cities and UK already has more than 31 cities with 5G mobile networks.
What is 5G and what does it mean for us?
Let us get this rather simple question out of the way first. 5G, in simple terms, means even faster mobile data speeds on your mobile network. 5G means fifth generation networks, following through from 3G and 4G that are quite common at this time. Forgetting all the complication about spectrum, airwaves, bandwidth, equipment and what not, simply put, 5G with its faster network speeds on offer not only mean that browsing on your smartphone will be faster, but it will also enable the use of mobile data for much more vibrant and complex functionality—smart cities, Internet of Things (IoT), smart transport, connected medicine, smart factories and more are on the menu. Potentially. In theory, 5G networks can offer speeds around 20Gbps. But that is all theoretically, because real world performance will depend on a lot of factors.
What did Reliance Jio Announce around 5G?
Reliance Jio says it is developing a 5G mobile network solution from the ground up, which will eliminate the need for the company to depend on third-party vendors including Huawei. It is expected that 5G network solution will be ready for testing sometime next year. There are plans to export this home-grown solution to mobile networks globally. The investment by technology giant Qualcomm could give Reliance Jio the technological advantage in the push for a new 5G mobile network solution. "Jio has designed and developed a complete 5G solution from scratch. It will be ready for trials as soon as 5G spectrum is available and can be ready for field deployment next year," says Mukesh Ambani, Chairman and Managing Director of Reliance Industries.
What about 5G smartphones in India?
Reliance Jio is also focusing on pushing affordable 5G smartphones in India. This comes as Reliance Industries announced the Rs 33,373 crore investment by technology giant Google in Jio Platforms for a 7.7% stake. “As India is standing at the doorsteps of the 5G era, we should accelerate the migration of 350 million Indians, who currently use a 2G feature phone, to an affordable smart phone”, said Mukesh Ambani, Chairman and Managing Director of Reliance Industries. The attempt is to get all users in India to upgrade from 2G mobile networks to a much faster data experience.
That being said, smartphone makers are already looking at 5G capable smartphones in earnest. For instance, the OnePlus 8 series, the Xiaomi Mi 10 and the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra are all available in 5G avatars. By the time this year logs out, expect most popular phones to have 5G variants and all new launches to tick off this box on the spec sheet.
Does India need an affordable 5G smartphone?
Yes, the simple answer is in the affirmative. The lower the price of good 5G capable smartphones, the quicker the adoption will be among the masses. While we can expect smartphone makers to duel it out over time, Reliance Jio making it clear they are getting into the smartphone hardware game for 5G significantly increases the stakes. And it has Google standing in its corner. After years of trying with high quality and truly affordable Android smartphones (and not having been very successful, one would say), Reliance Jio could enable a big push purely in terms of the scale that Google couldn’t. In India, at least.
Reliance Jio has said they are working with Google for a custom Android-based smartphone operating system which is expected to power the affordable 5G smartphones, while retaining strengths including the Google Play Store for apps. This platform will also be developed in India.
Who makes 5G equipment for networks around the world?
This is the big discussion these days. And the list happens to include the name of Chinese tech company Huawei, which has been in the line of fire in many countries—there is a persistent belief that Chinese 5G mobile network equipment enables a backdoor that allows the Chinese government to snoop in and access data of all users in the region the hardware is deployed in. and possibly worse. That’s the big privacy threat. And an even more worrisome national security threat for pretty much every country.
The US already have significant restrictions in place against the use of Huawei equipment. “Clean carriers like Jio in India, Telstra in Australia, SK and KT in South Korea, NTT in Japan, and others have also prohibited the use of Huawei equipment in their networks,” said Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, in an official statement earlier this week. A few days ago, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered that mobile operators are now banned from buying 5G equipment from Huawei and have to strip out any and all existing Huawei network equipment already in place by the end of the year 2027. That is the latest and biggest blow to Huawei.
At this time, 5G mobile network equipment is made by the likes of Nokia, Ericsson, Qualcomm, Samsung, Huawei and Cisco, to name a few. Reliance Jio joins the elite list which will probably soon drop Huawei considering its being banned around the world—step by step. The fact that Reliance Jio will also offer their solution for 5G mobile networks around the world, becomes immediately significant. Qualcomm’s investment of Rs 730 crore for a 0.15% stake in Reliance Jio gives the latter a technological advantage too.