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In India, the mobile telecommunications market has recently undergone both unprecedented growth and a tectonic shift. The penetration of the mobile network continues to grow rapidly in India. With over 448 million mobile internet users, India has the world’s second-largest internet population1.
However, this was not necessarily a great news for all industry players. In 2016, Reliance Jio entered the market using a strategy of extremely low-rate mobile plans but high-quality voice and data. The industry became highly competitive. This resulted in a price war affecting all mobile operators. Their profits went down, and debts gone up. This let to both consolidation and attrition of exiting industry players over the last few years. The consolidation has brought some synergies and economies of scale to better compete in the market, but the debt levels continue to remain very high.
In this background, commercialization of 5G technology has emerged as the next milestone for companies vying for a larger share of the telecom market. To address timely development of 5G infrastructure, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has also setup a forum ’5G India 2020.’ Its aim is to develop the roadmap for operationalising 5G services in India by the year 2020.2
While Covid-19 has somewhat derailed these plans, all key stakeholders in the industry have been working towards developing the right eco-system for 5G commercialization. One of the focus actions is to achieve a globally competitive product development and manufacturing ecosystem targeting 50% of India’s market and 10% of the global market over 5-7 years.3 These efforts are aligned with roadmap for 5G implementation globally for commercial deployment.
5G TECHNOLOGY: A GAME CHANGER
5G is a highly scalable technology with high data throughput. Different types of 5G cells can support different types of deployment environments, such as homes, coffee shops, small office, aircrafts, shopping centres, airport terminals, transportation hubs, and large open areas. So, when deployed in its full form, it is expected to replace two discontinuous technologies, cellular mobile network and Wi-Fi, with one continuous technology for seamless user experience on all types of mobile and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. This convergence of cellular network with Wi-Fi will also provide a significant reduction in power usage, technology complexity and cost.
5G technology is bringing along with it a much greater revolution than itself. At the base level, it will significantly increase the capacity and reach of existing mobile networks through greater data throughput and ultralow latency. But in a larger sense, 5G will become the backbone of many fourth industrial revolution technologies like AI, AR/VR, drones, IoT, telemedicine, and autonomous vehicles. Many kinds of devices, billions in number, will be connected to each other through 5G and offer the kind of capabilities and user experience never seen before. Our businesses and our lives will change forever.
The 5G sector is going to continue to evolve depending on the stage of its life cycle. At this early stage of 5G deployment, 5G infrastructure developers are the key players. While at a later stage, 5G application developers would be the driving force in the industry.
The major players in the 5G infrastructure market are Huawei (China), Ericsson (Sweden), Samsung (South Korea), Nokia Networks (Finland), ZTE (China), NEC (Japan), Cisco (US), Qualcomm (US), CommScope (US), Comba Telecom Systems (Hong Kong), Alpha Networks (Taiwan), Siklu Communication (Israel), and Mavenir (US).4
REGULATORY AND LEGAL FRAMEWORK APPLICABLE TO THE 5G SECTOR
Currently, there are no specific laws or regulations related to 5G technology, but the 5G sector will be broadly governed under existing telecom governance framework. The key aspects of this framework are as follows.
Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act, 1997:
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act, 1997 enabled the establishment of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). This law also empowered the TRAI with quasi-judicial authority to adjudicate upon and settle telecom disputes. Later through an amendment, TRAI was set up as an independent regulator of the telecom industry in India. TRAI’s powers are recommendatory, mandatory, regulatory and judicial. The important recommendatory powers of TRAI include: a) the need and timing for introduction of new service providers; b) grant of telecom licenses including their terms and conditions; c) revocation of license for non-compliance of terms and conditions of license. It is mandatory for the DoT to seek TRAI’s recommendations before making decisions with respect to the matters over which TRAI has recommendatory jurisdiction. Once it has received TRAI’s recommendations, the DoT may either accept or reject the recommendations. TRAI is also the sole authority with the power to fix tariffs for telecommunication services.
Indian Telegraph Act, 1885:
The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 is one of the oldest legislations governing telecommunications still in effect in India. This law: a) empowers the Government of India to take control of the existing telegraph lines and lay down the necessary infrastructure for further expansion of telecommunications in India; b) authorizes the Government of India to grant telecom licenses to establish, maintain, work a telegraph within any part of India; and c) authorizes the Government of India to take possession of licensed telegraphs and to order interception of messages on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety.
The Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933:
This Act was enacted to regulate the possession of wireless telegraphy apparatus. According to this Act, the possession of wireless telegraphy apparatus by any person can only be allowed in accordance with a license issued by the telecom authority. Further, the Act also levies penalties if any wireless telegraphy apparatus is held without a valid license.
Each telecom service provider looking to provide services in the country is issued a license by the Department of Telecommunications before commencing operations. The Unified License agreement provides for several conditions that the service provider must comply with, including general conditions applicable to the licensee, commercial conditions relating to tariff, license fees payable, and technical, operating and security conditions applicable to provision of telecom services.
Information Technology Act, 2000:
The Information Technology Act, 2000 is applicable to information and communication technologies. While the law was not enacted to directly apply to the telecom industry, the information technology industry and telecom industry are closely linked and therefore in 2008, the Act was amended to include telecom service providers and ‘communication devices.’ Telecom service providers are considered intermediaries under the law because they receive, store or transmit data ‘on behalf of another person’.5 In addition, security rules for protection of sensitive personal data or information also apply to telecom service providers.6
The Department of Telecommunications (DOT):
The DoT is a department of the Indian Government tasked with the authority to grant licenses for operation of telegraphs under law. Some of its important functions are: a) licensing and regulation; b) international cooperation in matters connected with telecommunications (such as International Telecommunication Union, International Telecommunication Satellite Organization, etc; c) promotion of private investment in the Indian telecommunications sector; d) promotion of standardization, research and development in telecommunications.
Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MEITY):
MEITY is responsible for “policy matters relating to information technology; Electronics; and Internet (all matters other than licensing of Internet Service Provider)”, “administration of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and other IT related laws”, and the “Unique Identification Authority of India”.7 Some matters, including privacy, relating to applications over the internet fall within the bounds of MEITY’s jurisdiction. On the other hand, DoT imposes privacy obligations on telecom service providers through the Unified License.
Spectrum is allocated in India based on the National Frequency Allocation Plan,30 which itself is based on the international frequency table issued by the International Telecommunications Union. A wing of the Department of Telecommunications, the Standing Advisory Committee on Frequency Allocation (SACFA), gives approval for radio frequency (spectrum) used by telecom service providers. In addition to obtaining a telecom license, a no objection certification from SACFA is required to begin rolling out services. The certificate is granted on the basis of a detailed technical evaluation including field studies to determine possible aviation hazards and interference (Electro Magnetic Interference/Electro Magnetic Compatibility) to existing and proposed networks. The government is bound to ensure that its spectrum licensing decisions are rational, transparent, and free from arbitrariness.
The 5G standards are expected to be battlefront in the 5G network evolution that will provide a much-needed impetus to emerging technologies that are awaiting deployment.
As per the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Committee on Digital Economic Policy, 5G will not only amplify the country’s GDP, but will also open newer avenues of employment and digitize the economy. It is expected to create opportunities for India to connect with global markets and take advantage of the economies of scale.8 The 5G High-Level Forum is drawing up an action plan in this direction.
1 Number of mobile phone internet users in India from 2015 to 2018 with a forecast until 2023. Sandhya Keelery, July 7 2020. Statista.Com. https://www.statista.com/statistics/558610/number-of-mobile-internet-user-in-india/
5 Section 2(w), Information Technology Act, 2000
6 Information Technology (Reasonable security practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or information) Rules, 2011
7 Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961