For the last three years, Kiran Kumar Kuchi has been travelling to the global telecoms standards meetings with resolute regularity. A trip every month. To the high-stakes 5G standards being drafted during the time, Kuchi and his colleagues from the Indian Institutes of Technology wanted to add a typically Indian requirement. But the stiff negotiations at the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), driven by big telecoms gear makers, made sure India was stifled. It had no telecoms company, and hence no seat at the table. No voice.
Meeting after meeting, India was outvoted. Blocked, or pushed around from one working group to another. Until February 2018, when, after some backroom drama at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Geneva, India finally opened its account. By adding a feature to the 5G standards. The full set of those standards—mandatory and optional—will roll out later this year.
A professor at IIT Hyderabad, Kuchi and his team have devised a new modification to the radio signal—which carries information in telecommunications—that can be configured for two important outcomes. To improve the battery life of a mobile phone and to enhance the signal transmission range of a base station, from the current last mile distance of 1.7 km to up to 12 km. The use case that India wants to apply this technology for is called Large Cell Low Mobility (LMLC)—wider coverage, at low speeds. Its specs are currently being finalised at the ITU—the UN agency overseeing development of the “IMT 2020” global standard for 5G—as you read this.
This is the first time ever that India can boast of owning an intellectual property (IP) in telecoms standards. This is also the first time that India has a chance to influence products for 5G networks. But it may not be the last time. And that has the big equipment makers worried. In the negotiation chambers of 3GPP, the essential technical features of Kuchi’s invention were diluted, from 12 km to 8 km, and finally to 6 km at the Toronto meeting in June 2018.
Much against the wishes of the Indian academics, India’s proposal was also negotiated down to be included in the optional list of the 5G standards. That means the rest of the world may choose to never implement it. India though has chosen to make it mandatory even as telecoms vendors have tried reasoning against it with the Department of Telecommunication (DoT). Their reaction isn’t surprising; toeing an Indian IP into their future products is not what big equipment makers are used to.
In most technologies, research happens first, standards are developed later. In telecoms, research gets encoded into standards first, products and solutions are developed later. Put simply, telecoms standards define what direction future technologies will take. Participating in and influencing 5G standards, therefore, has become a massive techno-political exercise.
The traditional telecoms patent holders—Qualcomm, Ericsson, and Nokia—expect to earn nearly $20 billion in annual licensing revenue from 5G handsets alone.