Even as the government makes big plans for raising revenues from auctioning spectrum for fifth generation (5G) telecom services, there is good reason for Indian telecom service providers to not rush into the 5G space. They would be better off spending their money and energy in making the 4G services they have already rolled out work to the limits of technologically feasible efficiency and graduate all subscribers from older, spectrum-inefficient, voice-only 2G services. The simple reality is that there is little material advantage to be had by embracing 5G at the moment.
Most people treat 5G as if it were the latest generation smartphone — must-have, for those who like to be at the cutting edge of things. They also think it would mean faster data, although they are not clear what faster data would be useful for — when 4G works well, data speeds are as good as you need them to be. What sets 5G apart is a combination of low latency and consistently low latency, and it is important to realise this. Latency is the gap between when you initiate a signal and the desired effect takes place. This is crucial if you are doing remote surgery over a mobile network: the robotic arm doing the incision must move precisely and in total coordination with the image relayed to the surgeon performing the operation and the instructions he reciprocates. It is also useful if you are playing a fast videogame off a server rather than on your console. Driverless cars are another use-case that is touted, as are self-directing robots on the shop floor. Is the Indian ecosystem ready for such uses? Robots could possibly make do with a combination of low latency Wi-Fi and edge computing, in any case.
A byproduct of 5G is a spurt in data of all kinds, including the machine-to-machine kind. India still does not have a regulatory system in place for an upsurge in data or the capacity to analyse it. All told, Indian telecom, as well as the broader economy, would probably gain from not rushing to be an early mover in 5G deployment and, instead, using its resources to optimise and universalise 4G.