Global Engineering Capability Review

India case study:

Engineering capabilities to advance 5G

India's Engineering Index scores

Knowledge = 20th
Labour force = n/a
Engineering industry = 23rd

Infrastructure = 89th
Digital infrastructure = 74th
Safety standards = 82nd

Following the liberalisation of its economy in 1991, India soon became a leading provider of IT services. The digital economy has since become increasingly valuable: a recent McKinsey survey of 600 firms revealed that core digital sectors already constitute a large portion of India’s economy and could contribute as much as US$435bn to the country’s GDP by 2025. [38] A government report goes further, suggesting that by 2025 India’s digital economy could be worth US$1trn, equivalent to 23% of nominal GDP. [39]

As part of its agenda to advance its digital economy, India is striving to become an early adopter of 5G services. 5G is the latest iteration of cellular technology, engineered to increase the speed and responsiveness of wireless networks. 5G will provide significant infrastructure for emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the IoT, by enabling much larger and faster flows of data. Mobile technology has already emerged as a primary driver of economic growth, stimulating enormous private-sector spending in both R&D and infrastructure. The economic impact of the next wave of cellular technology will be vast. [40]

In 2017 the government hosted the High Level Forum for 5G India 2020 to develop a roadmap for 5G deployment by 2020. [41] The report highlighted three areas for focus:

1. Deployment – to roll out services early in order to maximise the value proposition of 5G;

2. Technology – to build domestic industrial and R&D capacity, especially for design and intellectual property; and

3. Manufacturing – to expand the manufacturing base for 5G technology, including semiconductor fabrication and equipment assembly and testing. [42]

A long road ahead

Becoming an early adopter of 5G is likely to be difficult as India has a poor track record in rolling out new cellular technology. Second- and third-generation technologies were launched six to seven years after they were first available elsewhere, and 4G suffered a four-year delay relative to the first global users. At the end of 2016, 4G represented just 9% of total connections in India. [43]

India’s history of sluggish adoption of telecommunications technology is rooted in low investment in infrastructure development, which has made upgrades and enhancements more costly and challenging. The government recently raised import duties on some categories of telecoms equipment by 10%, both in response to the country’s current- account deficit and to encourage domestic manufacturing. However, this has added further expense to the procurement of network technology. [44] The country currently imports 90% of critical telecoms equipment, but the government is attempting to reduce this figure by tilting market conditions in favour of domestic manufacturers. [45]

As one expert noted, a large number of Indian engineers are also not equipped to work in the knowledge economy because of insufficient language, problem-solving and technical skills. Although big US technology companies tend to have a strong presence in India because of its reputation for strong (and cheap) engineering talent, there has been negligible change in the employability prospects of Indian engineering graduates in the past decade. Only a small percentage possess the skills required for working on next-generation technologies, with expert interviewees observing a particular shortage in coding. [46] Such skills are inherently multidisciplinary, requiring knowledge of computer science, mathematics, electronics and mechanical design. In order to successfully roll out 5G, India needs a greater depth of talent in two core areas: manufacturing and R&D.

Manufacturing: India wants to be able to manufacture semiconductors (a critical component in smartphones and communications technology), and to conduct the equipment assembly and testing necessary to implement 5G networks. There are also security advantages to manufacturing telecoms technology domestically. To do so requires semiconductors capable of sustaining efficient power amplification, as well as advances across hardware manufacturing. The workforce will need to be retrained to manage the various applications of 5G. [47]

Research and development: India also wants to build R&D capacity for 5G and its applications. Limited private-sector involvement and poor support for academic research, as well as a lack of engagement between these two realms, has limited industrial and R&D capacity. [48] Consequently, Indian engineers are not equipped with the right skills or resources to keep up with global competition. [49]

India wants to be able to manufacture semiconductors, a critical component in smartphones and communications technology, as well as to conduct the equipment assembly and testing necessary to support the implementation of 5G networks

To ensure the successful rollout of 5G, India needs to upskill the current and future engineering workforce

Technical and soft skills will pave the way

To ensure the successful rollout of 5G, India needs to upskill the current and future engineering workforce in both broad methods and targeted skills in fields specific to 5G.

With regard to the current workforce, some firms have recognised the need to upskill and developed strategies to narrow the skills gap. Large telecoms operators, such as Bharti Airtel, are bringing in external consultants from more developed markets to run training programmes on how to deploy these technologies, and are seeking support from outside firms to source equipment and optimise hardware processes. While such practices reflect the fact that India is not a pioneer of 5G technology, they offer scope for improvement.

For the future workforce, engineering education needs to adapt. Experts bemoan the fact that present curricula are heavily theory-based, and that less than half of students perform internships in industry or undertake projects beyond their required coursework. Instead, experts recommend that universities incorporate more practical applications and update coursework [50] to emphasise creative thinking and problem- solving. Experts also cited a need for local engineers to develop technical skills in areas such as circuit design and coding.

There is also a need to build up knowledge of spectrum management. [51] This refers to the way in which the radio spectrum is deployed in order to minimise interference and ensure the most efficient and beneficial usage. Spectrum management consists of four main areas: planning, engineering, authorisation and monitoring. The High Level Forum recommended the following measures to develop expertise in this area:

There has been negligible change in the employability prospects of Indian engineering graduates in the past nine years, with only a small percentage possessing the skills required for working on next-generation technologies

1. Create spectrum-management skills development programmes. The target audience should include university faculty, engineering staff and administrators. The programmes should also address the up- and reskilling of the workforce engaged in the development, manufacturing, deployment and maintenance of 5G technology.

2. Make programmes geographically and linguistically diverse. Skills development should address 5G applications, radio and network technologies, deployment and regulatory norms, and entrepreneurship.

3. Develop learning material for dissemination beyond classroom settings through hands-on lab projects, pilot and early-deployment field projects, virtual labs, and online tutorials and webinars. [52]

This scheme could also leverage existing government programmes such as the Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN), as well as programmes available through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the UN. A web portal that aggregates information and course material in an easily accessible format is essential to its success.

There is also space for research that identifies which programmes increase employability. Various initiatives could be tested, from massive open online courses and project-based learning to training faculties and internships.

Signs point in the right direction

India’s goal of becoming an early adopter of 5G wireless technology could have major economic and social implications for the country. However, achieving this target will be complicated by the limited skills of the current workforce, weaknesses within the engineering education system, and a lack of opportunities for current students and professionals to develop spectrum-management skills. The following steps could be taken to help overcome these barriers: re- and upskilling the existing workforce; curricula reform, including project learning and industry exposure; and the introduction of specific spectrum- management skills development programmes


Footnotes