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Teledata

Tele Data

Mobile Subscribers Yearwise comparision

Strong Signals: Operators increase their focus on IBS

November 29, 2013

The issue of inadequate indoor telecom coverage is a long-standing one for mobile users across the world. The problem has escalated in recent times, with higher data uptake. Industry estimates indicate that 20-25 per cent of all mobile users worldwide experience poor indoor wireless coverage, which is much higher in the Indian context. During the past few years, Indian operators have ramped up their macrocell networks to accommodate high speed data services; however, a complementary action on improving indoor coverage has been limited. Since over 80 per cent of data and 70 per cent of voice traffic currently originate from buildings, excluding “on-premises connectivity” from their “network strategy” is no longer an option for telecom operators.

Traditionally, in-building solutions (IBS) such as Wi-Fi and distributed antenna systems (DAS) have been deployed to improve indoor wireless coverage, while recently operators have started focusing on small cells for augmenting network capacity and enabling more effective coverage within buildings. However, high costs of the latter as well as an under-developed ecosystem for next-generation technologies have impeded the uptake of these solutions in India, restricting most of these deployments to trials and pilot runs.

Going forward, improving the user experience at homes, offices and public spaces will become a key focus area for operators to reduce subscriber churn, earn additional revenues as well as maintain an edge over their peers.

 Key trends and growth drivers

•   Need for seamless connectivity: The demand for superior coverage even when indoors is driving the deployment of IBS. These solutions provide telecom connectivity in zero-coverage areas or areas which are weakly networked – generally enclosed premises such as residential buildings, offices, shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, airports and railway stations. These are often in the form of small base stations installed inside buildings to ensure consistent mobile signals on premises, particularly in the basement, elevators and higher floors.

From a user’s point of view, uninterrupted telecom connectivity results in enhanced experience, call continuity with better voice quality and steady video and data traffic flow. As for operators, enhanced penetration would result in improved service provisioning and incremental revenues from indoor users.

•   Surging demand for smartphones/ wireless devices: The majority of the workforce employed by enterprises today use smartphones and tablets within buildings to exchange huge volumes of data with corporate servers and the cloud. In such a scenario, macrocell networks are not capable of providing reliable coverage and capacity on the premises and operators need to deploy IBS solutions for consistent connectivity between technologies/networks when these employees and their connected devices move in and out of buildings. Besides official purposes, people are also using smartphones/ tablets for accessing social networks at airports, hotels and malls.

The increasing volumes of handsets being shipped into the country is a clear indication of high indoor data demand in the coming years. As per IDC, the number of smartphone shipments to India stood at 9.3 million during April-June 2013, an increase of about 50 per cent over the previous quarter when 6.1 million shipments were recorded.

•   Focus on subscriber retention: In the past few years, increasing subscriber churn has become a key area of concern for operators. Subscribers today have a host of service providers to choose from, and services like mobile number portability (MNP) have eased the process for switching operators. In such a scenario, it is crucial for operators to outperform their peers in terms of service quality and network coverage to ensure customer loyalty.

As per Nokia Solutions and Networks’ (NSN) 2013 Acquisition and Retention Study Report, network coverage, along with voice quality, has the highest impact on customer retention, indicating that coverage – indoors as well as when on the move – plays an important role in customers’ decisions to stay with their current operator or move to another one.

Telecom regulator’s strong focus on ensuring adherence to Quality of Service parameters has also put operators in a spot and keeping churn rates low is proving to be a challenge. As of September 2013, about 102.49 million subscribers had submitted MNP requests.

•   Introduction of 3G and 4G services: The introduction of high speed data services has resulted in increased usage of wireless devices indoors. People are consuming huge volumes of data on the premises and have become conscious of dropped calls and slow data speeds. This is evident from the increasing number of complaints filed against operators at various consumer forums. While in the case of a dropped voice call a consumer can connect again, the situation becomes worse when a signal drops while downloading data, as the user needs to begin all over again. This may result in a bill shock for a consumer, besides putting user information in jeopardy, especially during online monetary transactions.

3G/4G has ushered in an era of increased data usage; however, to have these signals penetrate buildings without losing signal quality continues to be a key area of concern for operators. 3G service providers in India are yet to offer seamless coverage to consumers as connectivity remains patchy across most areas.

•   Emerging business models: While most of the incumbents have deployed IBS on their own, the industry has also seen the emergence of the neutral host model for such solutions. Under this model, a third party – the solution provider – pays for the system set-up and leases the access rights to operators. These carrier-neutral IBS providers offer end-to-end solutions including acquisition of right of way for buildings, and planning, deploying as well as maintaining the telecom solution infrastructure. Further, the neutral host model promotes infrastructure sharing, which results in cost optimisation while improving on-premises connectivity. Currently, telecom infrastructure providers such as GTL, Viom Networks and ATC; and major telecom technology solution providers such as NSN, Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent and Kavveri Telecom are operational in this space.

 Solutions and strategies

There is no conventional solution which can cover all building types and meet operator and user demand in an optimal and cost-effective manner. However, there are various solutions which when used independently or together, depending on the nature of the building and telecom service usage, can enhance indoor coverage. The most popular amongst these are DAS and Wi-Fi networks, while small cells are emerging as a key focus area. These technologies are deployed after taking into consideration factors such as the geographical location, device ecosystem and existing coverage.

In areas with limited cellular coverage, an existing Wi-Fi network can be leveraged by operators to provide a low-cost offload alternative. This is best suited for the residential and enterprise domains. The set-up requires a Wi-Fi router, a broadband connection and a compatible device.

For larger spaces such as convention centres, malls, airports and stadiums, DAS can be used. The technology involves allocation of wireless spectrum to a network of antennas within a building for improved and uniform coverage. These antennas can also be shared by several operators.

Small cells – femtocells, picocells and microcells – are generally used to complement operators’ wireless macro network in locations such as homes, offices and public venues. The technology is similar to installing miniature cell towers on the premises. Femtocells are suitable for residential apartment buildings and small offices while picocells can be deployed in medium/large offices and indoor public spaces. Enterprise femtocells have emerged as a promising technology to deliver high capacity coverage inside offices, while serving as a simpler, low-cost alternative to traditional IBS. These help enterprises in moving all communication services on to mobile devices, which drives mobile data ARPUs for operators. Also, the global enterprise femtocell market has developed rapidly, recording 70 per cent growth in the number of installations. According to ABI Research, the number of shipments would grow tenfold during the next five years, from 3.75 million in 2013 to 37.5 million in 2018.

There has been significant activity in terms of fibre infrastructure roll-out in India as well as the deployment of fibre-to-the home/office/building/floor, etc. FTTx can carry triple-play traffic; however, the cost of deployment remains a key deterrent as is integrating direct-to-home and telecom signals on FTTx infrastructure.

Operator plans and initiatives

The IBS space in India has several foreign and Indian vendors that offer solutions using active and passive elements. Traditionally, operators had deployed IBS-DAS solutions to enhance indoor coverage. However, Wi-Fi installations have increased over the past few years. Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, Idea Cellular and Aircel have started deploying outdoor and indoor Wi-Fi hotspots. Idea Cellular undertook Wi-Fi network testing in April 2013 in Hyderabad, Cochin, Ahmedabad, Pune and Vizag, while Aircel is rolling out Wi-Fi outlets in six major cities. Vodafone India has been reportedly partnering with Wi-Fi solution suppliers like NSN and Cisco to improve mobile broadband coverage in indoor public areas.

Reliance Communications (RCOM) has entered into a roaming agreement with Aircel, under which the operators are using each other’s mobile towers to improve network coverage for 2G GSM services. Operators are optimistic that such roaming pacts and infrastructure sharing will result in improved outdoor and in-building coverage.

Kavveri Telecom is also partnering with Tata Teleservices Limited for providing wireless IBS in areas where tower signals are weak. Under the 10-year agreement signed in 2011, Kavveri will build, operate and lease solutions to the operator.

Further, with the introduction of technologies like 3G and 4G, repeaters are no longer an adequate solution for high speed data capacity. Operators are devising strategies including a healthy mix of macrocell and small cell solutions for a ubiquitous coverage. So far, most operators have concentrated on enhancing the capacity and coverage of their macrocell sites, but they are expected to ramp up the installation of small cells such as femtocells and picocells in the near future. Several operators have already started trials of femtocell deployment in Tier I markets to augment their 3G indoor coverage.

Bharti Airtel has deployed picocells on its 2G networks in some buildings to ensure high quality voice coverage. The operator is undertaking similar trials for its 3G and 4G networks as well. Small cell solution deployment is an important part of Idea Cellular and Vodafone India’s network strategy. Aircel is also planning to move to femtocells to expand its 3G coverage. RCOM has tested femtocell technology for both GSM and CDMA services.

While operators have initiated some activity in the small cell space, it is still time before these solutions are undertaken in a big way in India. A key reason is the dismal broadband penetration in the Indian market, which limits the use of femtocells to metros and urban markets. The business case for femtocell deployment further takes a beating as customers do not wish to pay for femtocells, picocells or repeaters. Unlike several global markets, operators depend on customer ARPUs to recover the cost of these technology deployments. The high price definitely discourages operators from installing femtocells in all buildings.

That said, femtocells and picocells will witness increased uptake with commercialisation of 4G technology in the country. Industry analysts say that indoor data consumption will grow over the next few years, which will make it necessary for operators to deploy IBS. This will offer new opportunities for companies such as NSN, NEC, ip Access, Huawei, Cisco, ZTE and Alcatel-Lucent which are looking at several deals in the small cell segment in the future.

Towards ubiquitous coverage

Besides homes and offices, venues such as stadiums, airports, railway stations and hotels are increasingly deploying IBS to ensure seamless wireless connectivity to users. Most Indian airports are equipped with Wi-Fi services. Bharti Airtel offers Wi-Fi services at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai; Tata Communications provides Wi-Fi services at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in  Hyderabad; Quippo Telecom (now Viom Networks) was awarded the neutral host in-building communication solution contract for the Indira Gandhi International Airport’s Terminal 3 at Delhi; Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited has been appointed to offer Wi-Fi services at Kolkata airport; and Viom Networks would provide Wi-Fi and other internet-related services at the Chennai International Airport.

Wi-Fi solutions are also being deployed in trains and at railway stations to allow commuters data access. A Mumbai-based company has been selected to activate a Wi-Fi system at the New Delhi railway station. In 2012, the Bengaluru division of Indian Railways (IR), in collaboration with RailTel and Telibrahma, launched BluFi services at the city’s railway station. BluFi is a combination of Bluetooth application and Wi-Fi connectivity.

Further, in a first in the country, IR launched the Wi-Fi facility on the Howrah-New Delhi Rajdhani Express in April 2013. Introduction of internet access in a moving train is difficult considering the train passes through various terrains and providing continuous internet access in all kinds of weather is a challenge. IR plans to extend the facility to about 50 rakes of trains by March 2014 and to make these services available in other Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto trains in the next phase. The hospitality industry and hospitals have also seen increased deployment of IBS in the past few years.

Conclusion

As Indian telecom operators gear up to meet the high speed data demand of consumers, implementing a holistic network strategy – comprising appropriate indoor and outdoor coverage solutions – will be crucial. Network quality has emerged as a key factor which can impact customer loyalty and lead to significant subscriber churn in saturated urban telecom markets. Having achieved significant outdoor network coverage, operators should now focus on indoor coverage and make any time, anywhere full-signal strength a reality in the country.

 
 

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