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Fibre Focus: Operators’ perspective on future OFC deployments

August 11, 2016

The biggest growth factor for the optic fibre cable (OFC) industry is the data deluge currently being witnessed by telecom operators. Data traffic has, on an average, doubled year on year in the past three years. However, the backhaul capacity required for meeting this demand is insufficient. At present, tower backhaul operates mainly on microwave but this capacity is quickly getting exhausted, leading to a deterioration in the quality of service. Fixed connectivity can thus help operators resolve wireless delivery challenges. Telecom operators share their views on the status of OFC deployment, the key growth drivers, challenges and the road ahead for the segment…


M. Aruna Kumar

Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited’s (BSNL) OFC network has increased from around 0.6 million route km in 2014 to around 0.76 million route km in June 2016. Of the current OFC footprint, 58,477 km is in the northern region, 36,459 km in the eastern region, 58,186 km in the western region and 75,286 km in the southern region. Apart from this, 535,592 km of BSNL’s OFC network is in the rural and access areas.

BSNL initially started with a six-fibre OFC network and subsequently moved to 12, 24 and 96 fibre networks and even 288 fibre networks in some access areas. At present, most of BSNL’s OFC network comprises 24-fibre cables. However, the company has now decided to go with 48-fibre cables and dispense with 24-fibre cables. This can be attributed to the fact that the company has witnessed significant fibre cuts in the last few years and hence has now opted for having more fibres to ensure uninterrupted connectivity. Moreover, BSNL is of the view that it is better to have a high fibre count as there is not much cost difference between 24-fibre and 48-fibre cables. Also, the cost of fibre accounts for only 5-6 per cent of the total outlay on laying the OFC network and the major part is on account of right of way (RoW).

In 2014, BSNL had issued a tender for procuring 60,000 km of OFC for the Network for Spectrum project, wherein 57,000 km was for the Indian Army and 3,000 km was for the Indian Navy. For the army, the company had opted for 48-fibre cables while for the navy, 96-fibre cables were chosen. Meanwhile, under the NFS project, BSNL has now decided to have 5 per cent overhead fibre cables in the hilly regions. To this end, the company has designed its own cables, which are forty times stronger than the normal cables, in order to make them suitable for hanging on poles.

BSNL has recently issued a tender for procuring 109,000 km of OFC. This comprises 50,000 km of 48-fibre cables, 3,000 km of 96-fibre cables, 16,000 km of 24-fibre cables for operating the already laid 24-fibre networks, and 40,000 km 24-fibre cables for Bharat Broadband Network Limited.

BSNL is also planning to seek approval from the Department of Telecommunications and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to share or lease out its fibre assets to telecom operators and other service providers. At present, the fibre network is leased out only to cable operators for broadcast purposes. BSNL takes utmost care to ensure that the fibre network deployed is of high quality and is less prone to cuts. However, like other operators, the company too faces fibre cuts due to construction and civil works. BSNL has a capacity of laying 30,000–50,000 km of OFC in a year. The company plans to achieve an OFC network of around 0.8 million km by March 2017.

Rakesh Pundir

Idea’s OFC networks are focused on serving the mobility requirements of customers. As we have moved from 2G to 3G and recently to 4G in several cities across select circles, our OFC network has played a crucial role in facilitating faster time to market. In future too, as we roll out 4G across our circles and fill in the gaps for 3G, the deployment of optical networks will be a key inevitable. In our future strategy, we will enhance our roll-outs across not only urban areas but also semi-urban and rural areas, where we have recorded high data usage rates. We are aware that there are several markets where we are not market leaders at present, areas like Tamil Nadu or the eastern part of India, but we have been focusing on business there in the past couple of years. Prior to that, we were more focused on our leadership areas like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, north India and Kerala. Thus, as we focus on new areas and renew our focus in certain geographies, OFC will be a key pillar to make this growth possible. We at Idea are geared up to facilitate effective broadband coverage and reach our subscribers.

Our fibre holdings are currently a mix and match of our own network and that shared/leased by others. We lease bandwidth from most of our fellow operators like Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Tata Communications. And we have got our own fibre as well. We can possibly say that Idea is more than 98 per cent self-dependent and is dependent on others to some extent only for redundancy purposes or may be in regions like Jammu & Kashmir or the Northeast.

Overall, in the industry, sharing of fibre has gone up significantly. Operators are currently undertaking 30,000-40,000 km of greenfield roll-outs per year, driven by the ongoing rush for 4G across the country. The majority of the future requirements for fibre is unlikely to be in the backhaul space as most of that requirement has already been met. There could be some stretches where, because of a lot of fibre cuts, one may need an alternative route. Going forward, operators will gear up to fiberise the 4G or 3G sites; the majority of the fibre roll-out will be in urban areas and very close to the last mile.

Bijender Yadav

It is interesting to note that 20 years back when the industry started rolling out cellular networks, the requirements were limited to a few Mbps. So, operators used to backhaul three to four base transceiver stations (BTSs) in a 2 Mbps link. However, now when operators are rolling out 4G BTSs, the industry is talking about backhauling 100 Mbps. The industry dynamics, consumer behaviour and requirements have changed significantly over the past few years. The bandwidth requirements have grown almost 200-300 times. In such a scenario, OFC has been playing a key role in operator networks. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the role of OFC was mainly limited to having larger links in the core network, since networks used to be essentially microwave based. Later, the industry moved to MSC and BSC links on optic fibre. Further, when the 3G network roll-out started, the industry had an aggregation load of 8-10 BTSs, which is set to change as the requirement would probably be to have optic fibre connectivity to at least a second or a third BTS.

The Indian telecom industry currently has about 1.5 million fibre km. But more than the quantity of fibre deployed, the question is the existing mix of fibre in backbone and the access. It is a fact that there has been an overlay of multiple layers in the backbone but on the access part, the roll-out is hardly there. One of the possible reasons could be the issues and challenges associated with RoW in the cities. So, the intra-city networks need to be beefed up going forward.

One way to enhance the industry’s overall fibre network is to give sharing a serious thought. Several operators have managed to operate significant fibre holdings today as most of it is shared with other operators. Barring Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), there have been growing instances of fibre-sharing – OFC sharing and duct sharing - amongst private operators. The same kind of model needs to be practised if operators want to strengthen the intra-city networks. Some of it is already happening, but more of it is required going forward. The RoW rules in the cities need to be re-looked at and may be relaxed a bit.

OFC’s role is set to grow as more 4G networks get deployed and industry gears up for 5G. We have already started talking about 100 Mbps connectivity to each site, and this may grow to 200-400 Mbps to each site when more spectrum becomes available for 4G services. So, going forward, we see the OFC requirement reaching a level where it would be required for almost every BTS as well as for home broadbrand. Much progress will be seen in this space in the coming years.


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