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Indian telcos choose non-Chinese vendors for 5G trials

India has finally given the go-ahead for operators to carry out 5G trials, but the eyes of the world are on the vendors that will participate and, even more so, on those excluded.

The absence of Huawei and ZTE from the list of equipment makers taking part in the trial dominated the headlines on Wednesday. It’s worth pointing out there are only four players on the list and there is no specific exclusion of the Chinese companies. Nonetheless, their absence is clearly more than just a coincidence.

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) granted permission to operators including Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio Infocomm, Vodafone Idea, and state-owned MTNL to carry out 5G trials, it said, in a statement. The telcos “have tied up with original equipment manufacturers and technology providers which are Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and C-DOT,” it said, noting that Reliance Jio will also use its own homegrown technology in the trial. C-DOT, or the Centre for Development of Telematics, is a government-owned telecoms R&D centre.

The statement makes no mention of any other telecoms vendors. However, according to the local press, the government approved 13 trial applications from telecoms operators, which included the vendor partners they intended to work with, and the Chinese players were absent from all of them.

The Economic Times reports that when telcos first submitted applications for 5G trials – which were originally slated to take place two years ago – both Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea indicated plans to work with Huawei and ZTE in certain areas. However, when applications were re-submitted last autumn, the Chinese companies did not appear on any operator’s list of so-called ‘priority vendors’ for 5G. In addition to using its own technology, Reliance Jio named Samsung, Nokia and Ericsson as its vendor partners; Bharti Airtel and Vodafone went with Nokia and Ericsson; and MTNL said it would work with C-DOT.

It’s hardly surprising that there is no Chinese presence in India’s 5G trials. The broader political relationship between the two countries is strained, to put it mildly, and in addition the Indian government is keen to foster the development of homegrown technology through 5G. Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has often been quoted as saying that the core of the country’s 5G networks should be Indian.

Indeed, the government was quick to point out that it is encouraging the operators trialling 5G to use India-developed 5Gi technology and well as globally-recognised 5G technologies. 5Gi was recently approved by the ITU and facilitates greater reach of 5G towers and radio networks, it said. Telcos have been granted trial spectrum in the mid-band (3.2 GHz-3.67 GHz), millimetre wave band (24.25 GHz-28.5 GHz) and the 700 MHz band, while operators will also be allowed to use their existing frequencies at 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2.5 GHz. However, trials must be non-commercial and must not be connected to the operators’ existing networks.

The state has not issued an outright ban on Chinese companies taking part in 5G rollout. Indeed, its latest statement seems to put the onus on the telcos: “The permissions have been given by DoT as per the priorities and technology partners identified by TSPs [telecom service providers] themselves,” it said. However, it recently issued new rules on the procurement of telecoms equipment, which essentially require operators to acquire kit from what it terms trusted sources in a bid to maintain national security.

Naturally, the move was widely viewed as a step towards pushing Huawei and ZTE out of the Indian telecoms market, just as the government’s statement on 5G trials this week looks like another.

According to the Economic Times, the Chinese companies have not given up on the market, with one unnamed official essentially claiming that the 5G trials decision was down to admin, with the Chinese companies’ applications simply not having been processed. But no matter how you read that claim, it feels pretty thin. The Chinese firms seem unlikely to be in line for a big share of the 5G spoils in India.

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