At an event to mark the silver jubilee of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in May 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of the significance 5G technology holds to India’s prospects over the coming decade. Going beyond the high-speed data delivery promise of 5G, the Prime Minister remarked that the promise of 5G was in new areas of economic growth and employment opportunities. Soon after the Prime Minister’s call for an accelerated roadmap to realise the promise of 5G, the Department of Telecom notified the schedule for auctions to the spectrum blocks earmarked for 5G during the latter half of July.
Gauging the promise and potential
By 2027 over 40% of the mobile user base in India will have migrated to 5G, says a recent Ericsson report, pegging the coverage of 5G users to be around 500 million. Another interesting point in the study is the estimated growth in the volume of data and video traffic over the 5G networks – at four times the current level, owing, largely, to the increased penetration of smartphones in India. The average data/video consumption on a per user basis per month is likely to more than double from the current consumption of 17-20 gigabytes to over 50 GB, according to yet another industry player and technology provider. Both these technology firms, however, see the initial revenue opportunities for 5G to be in the enterprise segment.
Bedrock tech done, now turn to apps
While India has taken tremendous steps in indigenous development of 5G technology it begs the question if enough imagination has been undertaken on the creation of path-breaking applications that will drive viral adoption of 5G to bring in substantial incremental revenues.
It is creditable that between the Indian Institutes of Technology, Department of Telecom, Telecommunications Standards Development Society, and startups in India that not only has an indigenous 5G standard been attempted but also India-specific requirements for 5G have been reflected within the 3GPP family of global standards for 5G.
In what is a sign of increased confidence within the technology ecosystem in India, we have public research and development entities such as C-DoT as well as private start-ups such as Tejas, Sankhya Labs and others laying claim to key elements of intellectual property that will help in indigenous sourcing of 5G gear.
However, to fully realise the economic and employment potential of 5G as envisioned by Prime Minister Modi, the technology efforts will have to be matched by creative efforts on the applications front tapping into the unique needs and demands of the Indian market.
Where must we look for such a killer app if all of the current thinking is focused on the enterprise segment? The answer may perhaps lie in a new capability that was demonstrated at a recent conclave organised in New Delhi by IIT Kanpur and TSDSI.
New wave of change, riding on the old TV waves
At a time when linear consumption of live video is increasingly shifting away from traditional broadcast modes of direct-to-home and cable, towards OTT and smartphones, the capability to directly broadcast content to smartphones raises the exciting possibility of a new revolutionary app for 5G networks.
‘Direct-to-mobile broadcasting’ or D2M is an early-stage technology that has emerged not from the world of cellular telephony but from the much-forgotten world of terrestrial broadcasting. India’s evolution from the good old days of roof-top antennae and watching only Doordarshan to the current landscape of hundreds of TV channels is markedly different from the rest of the world. While the rest of the world digitised its analog terrestrial TV infrastructure, India leapfrogged directly to cable and DTH skipping that intermediate step.
While public broadcaster Prasar Bharati has phased out its obsolete analog TV transmitters numbering more than 1,200, it has also made available precious spectrum in the UHF band for 5G.
Emerging from this freed-up spectrum is the tantalising possibility of directly broadcasting video to smartphones over a terrestrial infrastructure that converges telecast with 5G.
Why India must converge its signals
The convergence of terrestrial broadcasting with 5G is imperative for a nation like India for multiple reasons. It not only makes for efficient use of valuable spectrum but paves the way for infrastructure convergence. Traditionally terrestrial radio and TV in India have evolved along parallel paths with silos of infrastructure locking up valuable public resources in the form of hundreds of acres of real estate, thousands of personnel and several hundred crore rupees as expenditure on power.
The convergence of broadcasting and 5G opens up the possibility to deliver both broadcast video and audio services over a common infrastructure to a common application interface on smartphones apart from opening up avenues for a new class of data broadcast services into internet-of-things and machine-to-machine ecosystems, as well as autonomous vehicles.
There is another, more compelling, case to be made for direct-to-mobile broadcasting. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of frequent public messaging with interventions on issues of public and national interest. A study of television audience measurement estimates reveals that even the highest viewed addresses to the nation by the Prime Minister reached only around 200 million individuals in India. This, in many ways, is the upper limit of reach one can anticipate under the most ideal conditions using traditional broadcasting. The present-day format of internet streaming would have added not more than a few million to this figure with fragmented attention spans of mobile consumers across on-demand applications and platforms.
As the traditional broadcast audience shifts to OTT, there is an increasing public service messaging delivery being at the mercy of third-party apps and platforms.
A sovereign nation can ill-afford to be potentially held hostage during attempts to directly reach a citizenry that is shifting from traditional broadcasts to digital data and video services.
D2M as The catalyst for mass adoption of 5G
Direct-to-mobile broadcasting has the potential to be both a low-hanging fruit to realise the early benefits, and then go on to also be the game-changer app that drives adoption to cross the 500 million that Ericsson forecasts toward a billion-plus level by the end of the decade. D2M can also be a key enabler to realise the Prime Minister’s vision of economic growth and employment avenues with the creator economy now having a new avenue to reach multitudes of audiences on more remunerative terms.
This will, however, require a creative confluence of capabilities across D2M, UPI and other technology stacks to unleash new use cases and business models unique to India. It will also call for a concerted multi-stakeholder impetus to D2M from standards development to public-private partnership-based seed investments.
A national mandate requiring all 5G capable smartphones in India to be D2M-capable would be the starting point for such a mission mode effort.
As the world’s largest democracy, most vibrant creator economy, and the biggest open market for smartphones, India is uniquely positioned to lead the world on mass adoption of 5G by unlocking the potential of direct-to-mobile broadcasting. Whether D2M can become a transformational offering will depend on timely action to seize the moment. Bloomberg