An eye on the future of wireless tech
- from Shaastra :: vol 01 issue 06 :: Nov - Dec 2022
The journey towards technological self-reliance is a long and arduous one for developing countries, replete with obstacles and frequent backward steps. Twenty-first century technology is complex and multidimensional, and requires a large ecosystem to develop. It is hard to develop a technology without first developing key parts of the ecosystem: good universities, competitive technology companies, manufacturing companies, consistent government policies, and a mechanism for sustained funding. Some of these parts can be created quickly, while others take a long time.
In the 75 years since independence, India has managed to create only some of the ingredients required to become a strong technology nation. It had good universities at the time of independence, and they were buttressed with the IITs in the 1960s. However, the university system, if we counted only the good institutions, was too small for such a large nation. Research in India remained excellent only in pockets, with key areas of contemporary science missing or insufficiently researched.
India was slow in creating mechanisms for funding science, and the available funding was also not enough to make a big impact. Policies in India were not framed with the aim of developing global leadership. However, where India failed most is in creating globally competitive industries, the success of software companies notwithstanding.
Technology companies in India have grown too slowly, in pockets and in fits and starts, with manufacturing seriously lagging behind. India is yet to create a global leader in any area of technology, especially innovative ones that have grown with domestic research and development. For a long time after independence, academia and industry remained apart, with each blaming the other for their lack of interaction.
Our Cover Story relates to an area where we have seen the first stirrings of change. At the end of the 1990s, India had roughly 20 million landline connections. This meant that, at best, 2% of the population had access to a phone at home. This situation has changed dramatically in two decades. India had 1.2 billion mobile subscribers in 2021, of whom 750 million had smartphones. By 2026, India will have a billion smartphone users, according to management consulting company Deloitte. Such a large market gives India leverage, and the country used it to good effect to have its way in 5G standards.
Research is active in India on 6G and satellite communications, but only in select areas. It needs to be ramped up for India to be a key player.
Our Cover Story, by T.V. Jayan, is in three parts. The first part is about the changes expected in wireless technology over the next decade and their possible impacts. These impacts have been predicted for a while, but we can now see them unfolding slowly in front of our eyes. As the story makes clear, research is active in India on futuristic areas like 6G and satellite communications. Through conspicuous absence, we also learn that this research is only in some select areas, and needs to be ramped up for India to be an important player in future wireless technology.
The second part of the story is on how Indian institutions built a 5G testbed that is close to commercialisation. This story has been told in the media before, but we thought it was a good moment to revisit it. Our interview for the Cover Story this time is with Arogyaswami Paulraj, Emeritus Professor at Stanford University. Although he lives in the U.S., Paulraj is not an outsider as far as the Indian telecom sector is concerned, as he was closely involved in many development efforts in the country.
We have a few other stories that are quite diverse, ranging from hunting for planets outside the solar system to fossils from India. In an interview on Astronomy is one of the last frontiers for physics, Prof Didier Queloz of Cambridge University talks about the excitement of finding planets outside the solar system, and his own role in it. Queloz was part of the discovery of the first extrasolar planet in 2002, and won a Nobel Prize in 2019 along with his supervisor Michel Mayor.
On How fossils are retelling our past, Manupriya writes about the exciting discoveries being made by palaeontologists in India, and how they throw light not just on the species and the Indian subcontinent but on evolution in general. They reveal details about ancient climate on the subcontinent, how species diverged as the continents moved, and how the reproductive biology of dinosaurs was close to that of birds.