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Why Creating an Indigenous LTE Chipset is Such a Big Deal

Brig. Ashish Chhibbar is Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 25, 2019

    Speaking at the Chennai International Centre’s first Business Visionaries Series talk on February 09, 2019, Vembu Sridhar of Zoho Corporation declared that: “We have developed a 4G LTE Modem in stealth mode. 50 engineers worked for eight years, and it taped out just last week in Taiwan. 5G is on its way. India must have its own LTE chip for national security.”

    With these many words, the Indian Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry came of age and shattered the glass ceiling by developing and manufacturing indigenous high end chipsets. The news comes in quick succession to another such remarkable achievement i.e. Project SHAKTI of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, which in August 2018 announced the development of a family of six types of microprocessors with the initial batch of 300 chips of Class C processor called RISECREEK being manufactured free of cost by Intel Corporation at their facility in Oregon.

    Development of indigenous microprocessors not only opens up immense business opportunities in the ICT space but provides a very high degree of security and assurance to strategic cyber systems ranging from space, infrastructure and navigation to power, defence and nuclear. The next step in becoming a true power house in the ICT arena would be development of indigenous systems and technologies covering the entire gamut of ICT ecosystem ranging from high end servers and routers to last mile modems and smart phones.

    The Long Term Evolution (LTE) Segment in Global Cellular Market

    Mobile communication standards are classified in terms of generations or “g”. The 2g networks had a maximum data rate of 64 Kilobits per second (Kbps) and could barely pass data required for multimedia messaging service (MMS). The 3g networks have a maximum data rate of 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) and are capable of sending and receiving a host of data applications including web pages, etc. In 2008, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) promulgated the 4g standards which had peak data speeds ranging from 100 Mbps (for mobile devices) to 1 Gigabits per second (Gbps) for static hot spots. Since none of the cellular networks were able to achieve these data ranges, LTE as a marketing terminology was coined to specify those systems and devices which had progressed far beyond the 3g data rates but were yet to achieve the 4g data rates. Thus, 4g LTE written near the antenna symbol on the mobile phone specified that the peak data rates were higher than 2 Mbps but had not yet achieved 100 Mbps.

    Another aspect to LTE is transition from circuit switching to packet switching and Carrier Aggregation (CA). Older networks used to rely on circuit switching technology. In this a circuit was engineered end to end (from host mobile phone to destination mobile phone) before the call being processed. This ensured a higher quality of service but with a lesser data rate and the call used to get disconnected in case a link in the connection suffered a break down during the call. In packet switching technology, the data stream is divided into data packets of fixed length with each packet being sent from the host to destination device through multiple routes. The packets are combined at the destination end and some loss of packets is acceptable to the system. This technology can provide higher data rates and is used extensively in video calls as well as voice calls over a host of social media applications like Skype, etc. Sometimes, it is referred to as Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) or Voice over LTE (VoLTE). Secondly, most of the cellular service providers hold licences of a smaller block of mobile radio spectrum (one carrier channel is of 20 Megahertz or Mhz bandwidth). In order to achieve higher data rates, blocks of spectrum (carrier channels) are aggregated dynamically to achieve a higher bandwidth (say, 40 Mhz for LTE cat 6 speed) and are referred to as 2xCA or 3xCA.

    There are 20 User Equipment (UE) categories (based on their uplink and down link data speeds) specified in the LTE standards. These UE categories enable the LTE base stations to communicate effectively with the terminal devices (smart phone, tablet, hotspot, etc.). LTE 0 has a maximum downlink as well as uplink data rate of 1.0 Mbps while LTE 15 has a maximum downlink data rate of 750 Mbps and uplink data rate of 226 Mbps. LTE 6 to LTE 8 are known as LTE Advance or LTE-A and use CA for increasing data rates.

    The LTE market is expected to garner business of up to US$ 997 billion and grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 58.2 per cent during 2013-2020. Qualcomm is the market leader with 65 per cent of the market share. Its microprocessor Snapdragon 820 is the heart of Samsung top end smartphone Galaxy S7 as well as LG G5. The Snapdragon820 supports LTE 12 (maximum downlink data rate of 600 Mbps, uplink data rate of 150 Mbps with 3xCA). Apart from Qualcomm, the other major players are Samsung, Hi-Silicon (subsidiary of Huawei), Intel and MediaTek. The LTE chipsets are used in network transmission systems and user terminal devices like smart phones, tablets, mobile hotspots, USB dongles, ultra-books and host of Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

    According to Vembu, the Zoho chipset is on the transmission side (modem) and not on the terminal device side, details of which are yet to be disclosed. The latest LTE modem by Qualcomm is Snapdragon X24 which supports category 20 LTE (with peak downlink data rate of 2 Gbps and uplink of 316 Mbps). It has been estimated that the global smart phone population is expected to reach 2.5 billion in 2019 (36 per cent of the global population). With 1.3 billion smart phones, China will top the list, followed by India at 530 million, and the United States of America coming in a distant third with 229 million. In 2018, mobile devices accounted for 73 per cent of the time spent on using the internet clearly establishing the predominance of smartphones over other mobile devices, like laptops and tablets, when it came to use of internet for personal use.

    Need to Indigenise ICT Capabilities

    The broad categories of ICT industry include software, devices and infrastructure, IT and business services, emerging technologies and telecommunication services. By 2019, the global ICT market including video and TV services is projected to be €4.4 trillion industry. The Indian ICT sector is expected to have revenue of US$ 225 billion by 2020 with a growth CAGR of 11.1 per cent. In addition, as per the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) statistics of 2017, India had a negative trade balance of $ -147,840 million in spite of an export growth rate of +13.3 per cent with the share of ICT goods at mere 0.89 per cent of the total export. The above statistics clearly indicate that by indigenisation of ICT industry, India will not only be able to substantially reduce its imports but also drastically improve its global exports resulting in a favourable trade balance between exports and imports, in addition to generating revenue and employment opportunities for our vast population.

    Another important aspect with respect to cyber indigenisation is the growing use of cyber domain for intelligence gathering, espionage, crime and warfare. Kaspersky, in its latest report, highlighted the growing cyber threat to mobile devices especially smartphones and tablets as they become the preferred medium for accessing the internet. One of the looming threats to mobile devices employed in critical tasks is the use of embedded spyware or backdoor in the chipset, which are tough to detect and can cause not only enormous loss of critical data but can also be remotely controlled to either malfunction or preform wrongly during crucial moments.

    On October 04, 2018, Bloomberg came out with the sensational news of Chinese embedding covert electronic backdoor the size of a grain of rice into servers of major American companies including Apple and Amazon during the manufacturing stage. Nowadays, chipset production technology has advanced to producing System on Chip (SoC), which essentially means integrating many different devices like antenna, transceiver and processor onto one single chip which makes it nearly impossible to detect the presence of backdoor in the chipset, which creates serious problems for devices employed in performing critical functions. Under such conditions, having indigenous ICT technologies spanning the entire ICT spectrum enables protection of critical IT systems as well as provides the much needed cyber autonomy.

    Lessons from Zoho Corporation

    Zoho Corporation is a fully private owned company which started off as AdventNet Inc. in 1996 with WebNMS as their first business product for telecommunication industry. Today, the company has over 25 products and 50 mobile apps and specialises in providing a complete range of software solutions for running a business including Customer Relationship Manager (CRM), Mail, Books (accounting software), Projects and Create (for developing customised software for business needs). The company not only specialises in cloud based business software but also provides specialised software to the telecommunication industry for managing IT assets and networks. Zoho Corp boasts of having a worldwide user base of 35 million and revenue of Rs. 2,468 crores.

    What is unique about the company is that it runs a university which picks up talented youth from low income households and after training absorbs them in its workplace. Almost 15 per cent of the 3,600 employees of Zoho Corp are Zoho University graduates. Also, the amount of time and effort placed on Research & Development (R&D) is worth a mention. Vembu has often remarked that the reason why the company has never gone public is because it wants to work according to its own clock without worrying about giving revenue to the investors at fixed intervals. Developing and improving a product for eight years with a team of 50 scientists in such a time sensitive industry speaks volumes about the R&D efforts as well as pursuit of excellence of Zoho Corp. The company has therefore been extremely successful in producing indigenous world-class software and selling it to the world, and with the production of LTE chipset it would soon start making forays into the hardware segment of the ICT industry.

    In a sense, Zoho Corp is a role model for Indian companies trying to enter the highly competitive and niche field of ICT manufacturing and services. It has proved that the global ICT market is open to absorbing new players irrespective of their size and revenue provided they offer well researched innovative solutions and products as per global standards at competitive price.

    Conclusion

    The almost back to back announcements of IIT Madras and Vembu Sridhar in successfully designing and carrying out initial production of microprocessors and chipsets is a much awaited shot in the arm for Indian ICT industry and signifies its coming of age. What now needs to be watched is the type of modem chipset Zoho Corp has designed and its subsequent acceptance and absorption in the cutting edge global mobile industry.

    India, being the second largest smartphone market in the world, definitely needs to encourage and incentivise home-grown ICT industry for not only giving a boost to its ‘Skill India’ and ‘Make in India’ initiatives but also to provide cyber autonomy to its critical cyber assets. In addition, there is an urgent need to have the entire gamut of ICT infostructure to be indigenously manufactured including the much awaited Galium Nitride fab as proposed by the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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