The auction of 5G airwaves is likely to get delayed beyond mid-July as the government is yet to take a final call on the issue of private 5G networks that has become a bone of contention between telecom service providers and tech companies.
According to a senior official, the government has been inclined on permitting carriers to provide 5G services to private companies on a leasing basis, however, representations from several companies seeking direct allocation of 5G airwaves have been taken up for consideration.
“It will be taken to Cabinet, they will take a call along with other decisions,” said the official. The cabinet will also take a call on the pricing of 5G airwaves and the duration of the spectrum to be allocated post auctions after the highest decision-making body within the telecom ministry, the digital communications commission or DCC, agreed with several of the recommendations given by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.
However, after a final decision from the Cabinet, the department of telecommunications will take some time before issuing the notice inviting applications, the formal document announcing the auctions and seeking interest from potential bidders. Experts said that this duration can be as little as two weeks to a month. From the time the NIA is issued, the auction takes at least 45 days.
The issue of private 5G networks has become a key concern with telecom service providers and the Broadband India Forum (BIF) at loggerheads with the latter, comprising of members such as TCS, Amazon and Meta among others, stating that private networks were revenue generators for the government and would not pose a security threat as the networks were closed and disconnected from public telecom networks.
In a position paper, Broadband India Forum has emphasised that the government should have a forward-looking approach towards use and advancement of technology, while asking the government to earmark certain amount of exclusive spectrum for private 5G networks in each type of spectrum band.
“Allow direct allocation of spectrum to enterprises/organisations at nominal administrative fee, as per global best practices,” it said. “Facilitate a light-touch online portal based paperless regime for acquiring permission/license for ‘Captive Wireless Private Network (CWPN)’ within 30 days of application, (as recommended by TRAI) to enable ease of doing business,” the body led by technology companies has said.
It has argued that private 5G networks were best setup by enterprises themselves since public networks can’t deliver the levels of efficiencies required. It further said that such networks would constitute additional revenue streams for the telcos and the government, since they will purchase the spectrum at a price to fixed by the government and allocated administratively.
The forum noted that the perception that spectrum can be assigned only through auction is grossly inaccurate and misleading, referring to the Supreme Court guidelines on spectrum allocation issued in 2012.
It added that private 5G networks were not permissible for external communications and the need for lawful monitoring, interceptions and the possibility of threats to national security do not arise at all.
Indian telcos on the other hand, have written to the government against direct allocation of 5G airwaves to private companies as it will adversely impact the enterprise businesses of telecom companies and will leave no business case for the carriers to rollout 5G services.
In a communication to telecom minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) which represents Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, has sought government’s “urgent intervention” to protect the interest of telcos.
The association said that giving away dedicated spectrum for private captive networks will hurt the financial health of the industry which is on the path of revival after the government’s relief package last year.
This comes in response to private companies such as Tata Consultancy Services seeking direct allocation of 5G spectrum, following recommendations of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) that had left it to the government to either license out the airwaves directly or through a leasing model via existing telcos. The telecom department has taken an internal view that telcos were best suited to provide the services to private companies, however a final decision on the matter is yet to be taken.
The association had on Wednesday said in a position paper that there was no justification for allocating radiowaves directly to enterprises for operating private captive networks, and that licensed telecom companies are fully capable of providing all customised solutions in the most competitive and economic manner.