India's telecom operators have written to the country's Department of Telecommunications (DoT) urging it to scrap the vendor-based restrictions on 5G lab trials.
The letter, sent through the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), implies that operators would like to see Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE included in 5G trials. Removing vendor-based restrictions would allow that to happen.
Operators have also asked for an import duty waiver on 5G trial equipment and the freedom to carry out tests in any part of the relevant circle (service area) using allotted spectrum.
India aims to conduct a 5G spectrum auction sometime next year and did not include Chinese vendors in its list of companies invited to participate in 5G trials.
Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, Cisco and NEC were all named on that list.
As a result, operators were forced to revise their applications for 5G trials by removing Chinese vendors from their own lists of preferred vendors. Authorities have also added a condition to bar companies from countries that share a land border with India.
The service providers also want to see the 5G trial process expedited. While they submitted applications in January, the Indian government has yet to respond about timelines or procedures. Another telco demand is that spectrum be granted for one year for the purpose of trials.
While the delays to 5G trials need to be addressed, market watchers have questioned the relevance of tests at this stage given that 5G technology has already been deployed in several countries.
The COAI letter comes shortly after state-owned operator BSNL informed authorities that rates charged by Indian vendors in its 4G tender were 89% higher than those of international vendors. BSNL also raised doubts about the ability of Indian vendors to provide carrier-grade equipment.
Both BSNL and MTNL, another state-owned telco, were banned from using Chinese equipment earlier this year. BSNL is also believed to have complained that it should not be singled out to restrict the use of Chinese equipment.
Recent developments, including the COAI letter, suggest operators are keen to start working with the Chinese vendors on 5G technology.
But India's government looks determined to make India less reliant on Chinese equipment in the aftermath of a border clash between the two countries. It is also trying to promote domestic telecom gear through its Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) initiative.
While authorities have stopped short of formally banning Chinese vendors, they have yet to clarify a position on the use of Chinese equipment, prolonging uncertainty for the industry.
In the meantime, the DoT has recently set up different groups to develop 5G use cases in agriculture, transport, fintech, healthcare and Industry 4.0. They include Huawei representatives.
Operators must hope their latest letter brings some clarity on their use of Huawei and ZTE.
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— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading