Indian operators to get go-ahead for 5G trials, but not with Chinese vendors
India–China relations have been growing more strained of late. Since May, the two countries have been skirmishing along their shared border, with a major clash in June resulting in the deaths of around 60 soldiers.
The battle is not only a physical one. With the world becoming ever more digital, tech is becoming a proxy battlefield for geopolitical disputes. India has long been mulling banning Huawei from its 5G networks – partially at the behest of the US – but has thus far resisted. However, tensions are growing, with India banning Chinese apps over data security concerns last month – a move that has since been somewhat mirrored by the US itself.
Additional major sanctions were introduced last month, barring any company based in a country that shares a border with India from participating in a government procurement contract.
But what does this have to do with 5G?
As non-government entities, one would think that telcos would be immune to these sanctions, free to work with whichever foreign vendors they wish. However, the government views spectrum as a national resource, hence their non-bordering stipulations will apply.
As a result, it is today being reported that the DoT is poised to approve operators’ 5G trial requests, but only in cases where they are not doing so with the help of Chinese equipment.
This will affect all three of India’s major telcos. Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea submitted requests to trial 5G with Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei, and ZTE, meaning the latter two requests will be denied. Meanwhile, Reliance Jio would receive permission for tests with Nokia, Ericsson, and Samsung, but not with Huawei.
Jio is a particularly interesting case, having also sought the opportunity to trial its own home-made 5G, which does not include the participation of any vendors at all. This request should also be permitted.
While India’s 5G auction itself is still some way off, with operators continuing to decry the expensive reserve prices set by the government, these geography-based sanctions will continue to apply, effectively fully excluding China from India’s 5G future.
Given the scale of India’s market, this will be quite a blow for Huawei and ZTE, who supplied much of the nation’s 4G network equipment, but for the Indian operators this limitation should come as no real surprise. Airtel, for example, has already said prior to this announcement that it will not renew Huawei’s contract once it expires and will instead switch to an alternative vendor.
According to reports, operators seem less concerned with who supplies their equipment at this time than with the trials being delayed. Executives reportedly told the Financial Express that the government should allow or disallow trial requests as it sees fit, but it must do everything possible to get the trials running as soon as possible.
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