BIF and COAI trade barbs in private 5G spectrum debate

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The representative bodies of tech companies and telecom operators in India are aggressively fighting it out over the issue of spectrum allocations for private 5G networks. The Broadband India Forum (BIF), which represents technology companies, has rubbished claims by the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) that direct allocation of 5G spectrum via administrative route to enterprises (as opposed to an auction process) would truncate the revenues of licensed telcos, rob the government of valuable revenues and create a non-level playing field.

“Under no count does the government stand to lose any revenue on account of direct spectrum allocation for private 5G networks to enterprises, as is being apprehended in some quarters…private 5G networks would, instead, provide an additional source of revenue as enterprises would purchase spectrum at a price to be fixed by the government and allocated administratively,” the BIF said in a media statement Thursday.

The BIF represents top tech players such as Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Cisco, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook-owner Meta, Qualcomm and Intel among key members.

Earlier this year, telecom regulator TRAI issued its recommendations for 5G spectrum auctions, which included allowing spectrum allocations to enterprises for private 5G networks via the administrative route rather than an auction process. However, last month the Digital Communications Commission rejected the idea.

The BIF has urged the Indian government to earmark a certain amount of exclusive spectrum for private 5G networks in each type of spectrum band and allow direct allocation of spectrum to enterprises at a nominal administrative fee.

The BIF also argued that auctions don’t make sense for private 5G networks because each enterprise that deploys such networks are effectively the sole user of that network – thus the spectrum should be allocated at a rational and reasonable price through a suitable administrative mechanism.

“This is based on best practices by other countries all over the world,” the BIF said.

COAI, which represents Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, warned the government on Wednesday that direct spectrum allocations to enterprises would give them a backdoor entry into telecom services, rob licensed operators and the government of precious revenue, and even threaten national security.

In its letter to telecom minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, the COAI, claimed that if independent entities are allowed to set up private captive 5G networks, there would be no viable business case left for telcos to offer 5G to enterprises.

BIF dismissed the argument that private 5G would hurt telco revenues, saying that telcos already earn money from selling voice and data communications services to enterprises, and that private 5G services wouldn’t add much more to that apart from specialized applications such as robotics and automation that require higher SLAs.

BIF also said that 5G networks are best set up by enterprises themselves because they have a better understanding of their own SLA requirements in their specific industry verticals.

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