India's Reliance Jio has asked authorities for permission to put some of its in-house 5G technology through lab tests, according to media reports.
The scope of the planned tests is unclear, although other private-sector companies have also applied for permission to carry out tests in partnership with equipment vendors. The Department of Telecommunications has yet to give the go-ahead for these tests and has yet to clarify if China's Huawei will be allowed to participate. (See India's RJio wants to develop its own 5G.)
Jio Platforms, the parent company of Jio, is currently flush with funds from several investors, including social media giant Facebook and private-equity firms including Vista and Silver Lake. In the last two months, it has received about $13 billion in total investment. Some of that could feasibly be used for the development of 5G products. (See Who's invested what (and why) in India's Jio Platforms?)
Jio's plans to develop its own 5G technology would be in keeping with the recent Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) initiative adopted by the government – an effort to reinvigorate the economy during the coronavirus pandemic.
A crucial part of that government plan is to reduce imports and rely on locally manufactured products as much as possible. Authorities have started working on a productivity-linked incentive (PLI) scheme to boost India's appeal as a manufacturing destination. (See India considers sweeteners to attract telecom gear manufacturers.)
The moves come amid growing international concern about the security of telecom gear made by China's Huawei and ZTE, accused by opponents of being conduits for Chinese state espionage. After recent tension on the Indo-China border, India's government has asked the state-owned telcos, BSNL and MTNL, not to use Chinese equipment. It is also considering a ban on the use of Chinese equipment by private-sector operators. (See India may bar state-owned telcos from using Chinese gear.)
Currently, Jio is the only Indian service provider that claims not to have any Chinese components in its network. For its 4G network, it relies mainly on South Korea's Samsung.
Several countries, including the US and Australia, have imposed restrictions on Chinese vendors, preventing Huawei and ZTE from participating in the 5G market.
Jio's development of its own 5G technology would be a further sign of a balkanization trend the coronavirus pandemic seems to have accelerated. With 5G promising to have a game-changing impact on several key sectors, including health and education, several countries are keen to use home-grown technology in their networks.
Yet there are few examples of operators that have built their own systems. Vietnam's Viettel is perhaps the only operator that aims to construct 5G networks based on its own software and hardware. Unlike Viettel, Jio is not a state-owned network, but it does have deep pockets to invest in research and development. (See Vietnam makes big bet on homegrown 5G.)
An ability to set up its own systems could translate into a competitive advantage. "Networks are complicated, high-investment and low-margin business," said a well-placed industry source who preferred to remain anonymous. "Jio might be planning to develop its 5G network and put it in the cloud, which can then be used by other telcos."
"Jio has a full IP network, which makes it easy to set up a 5G network when compared with other Indian telcos that have legacy networks," said the source.
— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading