The Centre should be commended for enabling telecom operators to launch 5G services within just two months of auctioning spectrum. However, now that the launch euphoria is over, it is time for a reality check on the challenges that could come in the way of making 5G available to the masses. While there is an expectation that 5G technology will enable the delivery of critical services such as digital learning, telesurgery and the Internet of Things over a mobile network with unprecedented efficiency, there are some major issues that need to be addressed if the Centre wants the benefits of this technology to reach every citizen.

The biggest challenge to the mass adoption of 5G services is the availability of affordable phones. The cheapest 5G-enabled phone is priced at ₹10,000 which makes it beyond the means of the majority of the population. The lack of a cheap handset had also slowed down the adoption of 4G services as many consumers found it tough to migrate from their 2G voice-only services to 4G. As a result, there are still over 300 million 2G subscribers in the country. One way of overcoming this issue is for the Centre to use the money lying idle in the Universal Services Obligation Fund to offer direct subsidies to consumers to buy 5G devices. The second hurdle is the cost of subscribing to 5G services. Even though some operators have said that they will not be charging a higher tariff for 5G, the reality is that the telecom companies are under huge financial pressure to increase their average revenue per user from ₹180 at present to ₹250 a month. More can be done to reduce regulatory levies and taxes so that the operators don’t have to increase tariffs. The third important aspect is the lack of use cases. Other than offering high-speed broadband, the promise of 5G remains on paper. Globally and in India there are a number of pilots being done in different areas, including telemedicine, warehouse management, and surveillance. The DoT is spearheading an inter-ministerial committee to explore the incorporation of the benefits of 5G technology into public infrastructure that includes a private network for police communications, incorporation in hazardous applications such as mining, and also in public waterworks systems for agriculture. But there is no clarity on when these services will be ready for commercial use. This needs to be taken up on a mission mode. This will ensure that telecom operators have a separate revenue stream to recover their investments. An area of concern is the emergence of a duopoly in the telecom sector. The Centre has made provisions to help financially stressed operators under the Telecom Bill but there is no clarity on many of these aspects.

Finally, the telecom regulator must review the quality of service parameters. Consumers are still grappling with basic network issues like voice call drops and interrupted data services. The focus on 5G will have no meaning if this remains unchanged.

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