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Late last year, it looked as if Samsung Electronics India had shown up too late to join India’s 5G race. Not just that, it picked the wrong vehicle too.

To a roomful of technocrats in Delhi, Samsung showed how its 5G tech in Korea was able to handoff signals between two base stations in a train speeding at 190 km/hour.

Firstly, delivering 100 Mbps on a train wasn’t really India’s leading use case to upgrade from 4G to 5G. And more importantly, Samsung’s Chinese rivals had demoed 5G speeds in trains running 300-400 km/hour at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) meetings over the past year.

Nonetheless, Samsung still impressed the Delhi audience. They drew up a plan. To test an emergency response on a 5G network around Sanchar Bhavan (the offices of India’s Ministry of Communications and Information), the Parliament, a hospital and a police station in the vicinity made for an ideal trial location.

That plan is still lying with the Department of Telecommunication (DoT), as are those from Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia. The trials are likely to start anytime in the coming few weeks once the DoT specifies the use cases.

State-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited has even geared up to use Huawei equipment for the trials, say industry sources. Even though the Chinese equipment maker itself has maintained radio silence in India. Huawei backed out of a meeting and subsequently declined to comment for this story.

That was December; this is February.

What a difference a month–January–can make.

Since December, when Canada detained Huawei Technologies Co.’s  CFO and the daughter of its founder, Meng Wanzhou, on sanctions charges, the United States has led a global offensive against the company, alleging that China uses its equipment for spying.

By January, several developed countries initiated broad reviews of the world’s largest telecommunications equipment maker’s supply chain and increased scrutiny of its infrastructure. Even if many of these countries are not banning Huawei outright, they certainly have put the brakes on its 5G march. Huawei has made a substantial contribution to the development of 5G standards, but it now finds several countries shifting their stance. More because of their suspicions of China rather than specific actions by the company.

“Something is shifting in G8 business. Australia catches a cold when China sneezes; so much Chinese money goes into its universities, but still, it has banned Huawei’s 5G,” says a telecoms technocrat in New Delhi. “Taiwan has been told to move out of China… It used to complain about logistics in India, but now Taiwan says, ‘What can we do here’.”

In this fast shifting market, India is uniquely positioned. It is the only large country which hasn’t officially taken a stand against Huawei.


Seema Singh

Seema has over two decades of experience in journalism. Before starting The Ken, Seema wrote “Myth Breaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech”, published by HarperCollins in May 2016. Prior to that, she was a senior editor and bureau chief for Bangalore with Forbes India, and before that she wrote for Mint. Seema has written for numerous international publications like IEEE-Spectrum, New Scientist, Cell and Newsweek. Seema is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MacArthur Foundation Research Grantee.

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