The Battle of 5G: Why the Indian Army wants high-speed network at 18,000 feet

Amid the tussle in eastern Ladakh in 2020, China rolled out 5G network on its side of the border. Now the Indian Army wants to keep pace with Beijing and provide secure voice and data services to troops posted along the LAC

FP Explainers July 27, 2022 17:21:27 IST
The Battle of 5G: Why the Indian Army wants high-speed network at 18,000 feet

The Indian Army wants 4G and 5G-based mobile cellular network along the Line of Actual Control. Representational pic/AFP

It’s a battle of 5G along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as tensions between India and China continue. Beijing was the first to roll out a 5G network on its side of the border to boost communication and data services in 2020 amid the clashes in eastern Ladakh. The Indian Army is not the one to be left behind.

To take on China, our Army is doing all it can to improve the communication network along the LAC. It is looking to install 4G and 5G networks which can be used in mountainous terrain, even at the height of 18,000 feet.

Asking for bids

The Indian Army has put out a request for information (RFI), asking for bids from companies to provide the technology for 4G and 5G cellular networks, which can be accessed by soldiers posted in the region. The request comes with a rider: The firm should be able to deliver within 12 months of getting the contract.

“The intended network will be used by field formations of the Indian Army deployed in the mountainous/semi-mountainous/high altitude region (up to 18,000 feet). The network is envisaged to provide reliable and secure voice messaging and data services to support operational requirements of field formations,” the RFI says, according to a report in India Today.

The network along the LAC must be inaccessible to any user who is not authorised or other radio access technology (RAT) networks. As part of the secrecy requirements, the system must be able to integrate with an encryption device as buyer-furnished equipment, for backhaul secrecy of the network.

The need for 5G

The Indian Army has been facing communication problems at forward locations in high-altitude areas. A secure radio frequency is available along with satellite mode currently. However, 4G and 5G networks are needed urgently for faster communication and data transfer, reports ThePrint.

Trouble from China

In 2020, there was a clash between India and China at Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh, which led to the gravest escalation between the two countries since the 1962 war. Amid rising tensions, the neighbouring nation lay down fibre-optic cables on their side to boost communication and introduced the 5G network along the LAC. Beijing is expected to convert all its surveillance and communication systems to the same.

The Indian armed forces posted along the LAC have been facing problems in radio communication since Beijing installed the 5G network, according to a report in The New Indian Express. Soldiers have reportedly been hearing a strange booming sound in communication equipment caused because of the 5G waves from the China side.

The Defence Research and Development Organisation was reportedly looking into the problem. Ravi Gupta, a former defence scientist, told The New Indian Express, “If at all there is any problem in the communication equipment due to the 5G used by China at northern borders, the DRDO is capable enough to resolve it.”

India vs China

While Chinese troops have access to 5G, there is poor network in the border areas on the Indian side.

Konchok Stanzin, councillor of Chushul in Ladakh, has been flagging this issue for a while. On 2 June, he wrote on Twitter, “Requesting from ground zero for 4G in border villages. Chushul constituency’s villages are still deprived of better communication facilities. Don’t treat us as second-class citizens. My villages are not normal; these villages are border villages, treated as a priority.”

He pointed out that China, after completing the bridge over the Pangong Lake, has installed three mobile towers near Hot Spring very close to the Indian territory. “Isn’t it a concern? We don’t even have 4G facilities in human habitation villages; 11 villages in my constituency have no 4G facilities.”

On 7 June, Reliance Jio expanded the reach of its 4G services in the Ladakh region to a village close to Pangong Lake, which has been a friction point between India and China.

India’s 5G story

The request from the Indian Army comes at a time when India is holding its biggest spectrum auction. On Tuesday, the auction for 72 GHz (gigahertz) of 5G airwaves worth ₹ 4.3 lakh crore kicked off. Billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio, Sunil Mittal-led Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and a unit of Gautam Adani's Adani Enterprises are in the race to bid for the 5G spectrum.

India is expected to get full-fledged 5G services by March 2023.

With inputs from agencies

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