Home / Opinion / Views /  Tata as advanced telecom-gear maker will bolster India’s strategic autonomy

The Tata Group is poised to emerge a major player in the high-growth telecom equipment market, with a consortium of Tata companies winning a 26,821 crore order from stat-owned telecom operators BSNL and MTNL to set up 100,000 4G sites. This is likely to prove transformative for not just rural India’s broadband access but also for the telecom landscape of the world itself.

The Tatas have finished the acquisition of Tejas Networks, a company in the telecom hardware space, which itself had acquired Saankhya Labs Pvt Ltd, which is an R&D-focused firm in chip design and much else. Tata Elxsi is another high-tech company in the Tata stable that would come in handy for the Tata Group to leverage its extensive software expertise, embodied in TCS, India’s largest IT-services company, to develop the new breed of telecom hardware, which is software-intensive.

The 4G kit that the Tatas would design, manufacture and deploy, with a little help from the state-owned C-DoT, is expected to be upgradable to provide 5G services, with the installation of additional software. Of course, depending on the bandwidth used, 5G could call for many more sites to offer blanket coverage than 4G.

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The significance of the development is that the world now would have one more major supplier of advanced telecom gear, in addition to Ericsson, Nokia Siemens, Samsung and Huawei. This is not just a question of increasing commercial choice, but of the addition of a vendor who can be trusted not to use the network it supplies to snoop on users of the network on which its ware is deployed.

Telecom integrity is closely related to national security. The US led the campaign to boycott Chinese telecom major Huawei, on grounds of national security risk. Huawei is not just at the cutting edge of telecom tech, but also the most cost-competitive provider of telecom gear in the world, with a ready market across the developing world and in some developed world markets as well.

The choice for several developing countries has been to risk data integrity or opt for more expensive kit from European suppliers and thus have elevated cost for telecom services. While Samsung has entered the market for telecom hardware, Tata Group offerings in high-throughput, low-latency networks are likely to be more affordable for developing markets.

With China rising as a rival in high-tech areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and communications and advanced microelectronics, and given China’s reluctance to toe the line drawn by the US, which is popularly known as the rules-based world order, the US administration has placed restrictions on Chinese access to assorted high-end American technology. This has helped focus attention on the need for technological self-reliance for countries such as India that aspire for strategic autonomy. The Tata Group’s emergence as a developer of advanced telecom hardware would be an asset for India in this regard as well.

With several serious responses to government initiatives for developing Indian chip design and fabrication capability, India’s plans for strategic autonomy are no longer just an aspiration. The government’s decision to ask the BSNL-MTNL combine to place its equipment order only with Indian vendors has proved to be a sensible bit of industrial policy as well, catalysing the combination of design, software and hardware capabilities within the Tata Group to produce a vendor of telecom equipment.

The creation of a new consortium to make telecom hardware will trigger further domestic innovation in telecom, a larger supply of software developers in networking and, probably, start-ups that try their hand at innovative bits of hardware.

With the foray into telecom gear, Tata, in other words, is saying ‘hello’, rather than ‘Tata’, to a new tech future for India, one that seemed within reach in the early days of C-DoT and its global success in developing sturdy automated exchanges for rural areas, but disappeared soon enough, with a change of guard at the national government.

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