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Which of the following technologies/concepts are likely to witness significant traction this year?

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Tele Data

Mobile Subscribers Yearwise comparision

Suitable Spectrum: Improving broadband connectivity through E-band

March 29, 2017

While India continues to lag in broadband penetration, operators are exploring new technologies to extend broadband connectivity to under-served areas. In this regard, E-band, with its optical fibre-like capacity, is emerging as a promising technology. Industry observers discuss the status of broadband in India, suitable technologies for delivering broadband, and the role of E-band spectrum in delivering a good broadband experience… (From left to right: Rajan S. Mathews, Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India; T.V. Ramachandran, President, Broadband India Forum; R.S. Sharma, Chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India; Vishant Vora, Director, Technology, Vodafone India; Anupam Shrivastava, Chairman and Managing Director, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited)

What is the broadband status in India and what are its future prospects?

Rajan S. Mathews

As per the latest broadband figures released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), India has reached around 25 million broadband subscribers. On the global ICT index, India ranks way below many developing nations. However, last year, India overtook the US as the second largest country in terms of internet user base. This backdrop sets the tone for the next phase of broadband growth as the existing users plan to move to the next slab of internet usage.

T.V. Ramachandran

The National Telecom Policy announced in 2012 targeted 175 million broadband users by 2017 with a minimum speed of 2 Mbps, and 600 million by 2020. Moreover, India should have  the capability to provide up to 100 Mbps. Against this, we reached 192 million customers by September 2016 itself. However, the minimum broadband speed is still 512 kbps instead of the policy-stipulated 2 Mbps. As per the ITU Broadband Report of 2016, India ranks as low as 132 in the global fixed broadband list, 156 in the mobile broadband list. These rankings too are at the lenient, low norm of 512 kbps. While all the above data presents a depressing picture of the status of broadband in India, we at BIF are quite upbeat about its prospects going forward. The significant policy and regulatory steps taken over the past several months are clearly building for a bright future. A few examples of these are the Right of Way (RoW) Rules, increased spectrum holdings with operators, acceleration of BharatNet, innovative regulatory approaches to Wi-Fi, satellite broadband, cable broadband, support for fixed broadband, etc. Some of these are already beginning to show the fruits and we believe that in the next year, there will be an exponential rise in good quality broadband.

R.S. Sharma

Since the commencement of the Digital India programme, the broadband numbers have been on a steady rise. However, in terms of world rankings, India continues to be at a lower position. In order to expand internet access, the government has taken several initiatives to improve the country’s digital infrastructure, which are at various stages of implementation. We feel that the Wi-Fi coverage is necessary for the success of the Digital India programme.

Vishant Vora

Broadband is currently centred around urban locations and is heavily mobile-oriented. However, in mobile broadband, bandwidths are lower in India as compared to those in other modern global markets. Civic and state government agencies are keen on participating in the buildout of public broadband through partnerships with service providers. The demand is generated through broadband usage at schools and offices, and is growing around social networks in India. While all stakeholders see a clear business case for urban broadband, a significant number of consumers in the rural segment are still poorly serviced.

Anupam Shrivastava

As per the latest information, around 400 million Indians are using the internet through various means. Data is the future of the telecom industry as operators migrate from 2G to 3G, 3G to 4G, and 4G to 5G. We have also seen that data consumption per customer is increasing exponentially. BSNL is fully aware of this trend and we are preparing ourselves to offer data-oriented services to consumers. BSNL has strengthened its data and core network, and has deployed around 5,000 Wi-Fi hotspots for offloading mobile data. We are also modernising our legacy public switched telephone network switches to IP multimedia subsystem-based next-generation network switches, and have deployed six internet data centres as well as one cloud centre.

Which access technologies are most suitable to deliver broadband in India? In the low fibre penetration scenario, what are the alternative technologies for backhaul networks?

Rajan S. Mathews

The minimum broadband speed in the country has been fixed at 512 kbps and given the roll-out of 4G, both wireline as well as wireless service providers are equipped to offer the same across the length and breadth of the country. With the launch of several new technologies across the globe, the Indian government and companies can choose the most suitable technologies that can be adapted to the heterogeneous Indian landscape.   The heterogeneous geographical landscape demands smaller cells and corresponding technologies. Some Indian companies are also creating broadband and Wi-Fi zones through ISM bands to distant cities and villages as the last-mile backhaul.   Solutions such as connectivity through satellite networks are also available.

T.V. Ramachandran

Currently, almost 90 per cent of users have adopted mobile broadband technologies owing to the price-sensitive nature of the market. However, it is highly unrealistic to expect mobile to cater to all the remote and niche demand segments and also meet the high bandwidth requirements of heavy transaction broadband users. Hence, all types of access technologies must be permitted. While fixed and mobile will be the primary access technologies, other technologies such as Wi-Fi are very important sources of secondary access to broadband. It is essential to have an abundant roll-out of fibre in order to accelerate the pace of broadband penetration in the country. The US and China have installed nearly 1.6 billion km of fibre whereas India has only 70-80 million km. Moreover, India deploys only 15 million km of fibre a year, whereas China adds about 150 million. So the huge existing gap keeps widening every year. Upgrading our infrastructure to fiberise all our towers will require huge investments.

Despite the above challenges, effective backhaul can be made available through special wireless technologies of the E and V bands, which are aptly referred to as “wireless fibre” solutions. Such high capacity wireless fibre backhaul links are required urgently by service providers for backhaul in existing 3G and 4G networks, which are getting choked due to exploding data usage. While E-band is typically in the 71-76 GHz and 81-86 GHz spectrum bands, the V band is in the 57-64 GHz spectrum band. Both are typically used for high capacity multi-gigabit wireless backhaul links and can provide anything up to a few Gigabits of capacity. E-band is used for short to medium to long haul links with distances ranging from 1-3 km in urban areas and up to 10 km in rural areas. Meanwhile, V band is extremely useful for backhaul over ultra short distances as well as secondary access.

R.S. Sharma

In the broadband supply chain, local access networks directly connect the end-users to broadband services, or the “last mile”. Several wireline and wireless broadband technologies are currently being used to support local access networks. Having multiple broadband access options increases consumer choice, stimulates intermodal competition, improves quality and brings down retail prices. Different technology options have different advantages and limitations, and are suitable for different requirements. We had made recommendations on the use of E and V bands for backhaul networks way back in 2014.

Vishant Vora

Given the size and complexity of the country, a mix-and-match of technologies will need to be used depending on their use case. There will not be a one-size-fits-all technology. Wireless to wireline technologies will come into play based on the usage scenario. The biggest facilitator of broadband would be easing the process of rolling out fibre. Cost-effective broadband technologies like gigabit-capable passive optical networks, data over cable service interface specification and Ethernet seem to hold the maximum promise in making broadband affordable. E-Band and V-Band microwaves seem to be the most promising backhaul options for telcos beyond fibre at this stage. Unless spectrum is made available to operators at an affordable price, broadband will not become truly ubiquitous.

Anupam Shrivastava

One solution will not appropriately fulfil the data needs of all telecom users. We have seen urban users migrating from 64 kbps to 2 Mbps over a period of four to five years. However, at present, only the rural population can be satisfied with a data speed of up to 2 Mbps. We should be ready to deliver up to 10 Mbps speeds to urban users.

Wireless and wireline technologies are required to fulfil the high speed data needs. Higher bandwidth can be delivered using fibre-to-the-home in wireline, and 4G and 5G in the wireless space. Further, ADSL2+ and VDSL in the wireline space, and 2G and 3G in wireless can be useful for semi-urban and rural areas. For covering hilly areas and islands, radio links (mini links) and satellite links may be used to provide telecom facilities. BSNL has got its MPLS backbone ready to deliver fault-free, low latency and very high-speed services to broadband users.

What steps are being taken by the government to increase the backhaul bandwidth, considering that Digital India will create an exponential bandwidth demand beyond urban clusters?

Rajan S. Mathews

At present, there is immense emphasis on the need for infrastructure, which will provide the backbone for rolling out development programmes such as Digital India and Smart Cities. While 4G provides more bandwidth at lower latency and downloads of around 45 Mbps, the deliverables are dependent on the robust network backbone. In the absence of a connected ecosystem, congestion may impact services, which happened during the 3G roll-out. Apart from connectivity, high congestion can affect download speeds. A robust network infrastructure is thus critical for delivering a world-class broadband experience.

T.V. Ramachandran

The government is totally seized of the matter and is taking several steps to meet the explosive backhaul demands of the carriers. It recently released the RoW rules, which will help in addressing the issue. Also, TRAI has recommended opening up of several bands in the super-21 GHz bands (from 28-42 MHz) for point-to-point and point-to-multipoint use. It also suggested opening up of the E and V bands in view the scarcity of fibre and the inability of traditional/legacy microwave spectrum bands to cope with the increasing access traffic.

R.S. Sharma

BharatNet is one of the most important initiatives for the attainment of the Digital India vision. Over the past one year, several decisions have been taken to speed up  work on the BharatNet project and add essential features to it.

Vishant Vora

A stronger emphasis on leveraging wireless backhaul is needed. The presence of telecom operators close to semi-urban/ rural clusters and government initiatives to improve wireline penetration to the district headquarters and talukas will facilitate the wider adoption of broadband owing to the availability of good backhaul and access technologies (core, middle mile and last mile). The government should consider sub 1 GHz spectrum allocation to telecom providers based on an alternative commercial model, which provides a large geographical coverage and faster broadband roll-out. The government has issued a notification to ease the RoW application process and make it more transparent. It has also promised to firm up the backhaul policy this year. Meanwhile, policies that leave no ambiguity, and are simple and affordable to implement need to be formulated to improve broadband uptake in the country.

Anupam Shrivastava

The government has initiated various projects such as BharatNet and the defence project (Network for Spectrum) to take fibre to the last mile and deliver very high speed broadband through a reliable backbone to both urban and rural consumers. BSNL has undertaken the augmentation of its broadband network from 1G to 10G. Further, the capacity of the resilient packet ring network using the MPLS-transport profile-based next-generation packet aggregation network technology is being upgraded. An estimated Rs 1 trillion has been earmarked for these projects. Both the projects have progressed significantly and several village panchayats have already been lighted up.

What is your opinion on the role of E-band-based backhaul networks in delivering a good quality broadband experience?

Rajan S. Mathews

E-Band is definitely very efficient in delivering high-speed data to users. However, its drawback is its limited geographical range.  It holds immense potential as higher network capacities are utilised to reach out to every city across the length and breadth of the country.

T.V. Ramachandran

There is a need to supplement the fibre on the ground by opening up wireless spectrum bands that is E and V bands for backhaul purpose. There are certain places in urban areas and metros where fibre can be carried up to a certain point and no further. In such cases, the fastest way to augment backhaul infrastructure is by connecting the existing fibre node with the E or V band. Since the E and V bands provide high capacity multi-gigabit point-to-point links, they will not only help diffuse the backhaul traffic but also release the extra capacity at other points of the network, thereby leading to better and more optimum use of the network.

R.S. Sharma

E-band refers to the frequency range of 71-76 GHz paired with that of 81-86 GHz. It is also called “millimetre waves”. E-band delivers very narrow and directional beams, which allow the deployment of multiple independent links in close proximity. This makes the band suitable for last mile deployments in urban areas. The channel sizes in E-band are sufficiently higher (typically 250 MHz) than conventional microwave spectrum for fixed links, and thus have the capability to transfer very high data rates of 1 Gbps and above. Therefore, it may act as a suitable replacement for optical fibre for small distances (less than 1 km) particularly in dense urban areas where laying of optical fibre is difficult. E-band can be used as a last mile solution for providing rapid and economical deployment of networks in dense urban routes. With increase in the penetration of 3G services and the rapid roll-out of 4G (LTE) services, data traffic has increased significantly. Telecom service providers (TSPs) are in need of significantly high capacity data throughput per cell site(s). It will help in creating the infrastructure for the Digital India programme of the Government. Therefore, opening the E-band can be useful for catering to backhaul requirements.

Vishant Vora

There are several ways to leverage E-band such as putting more backhaul spectrum on the block; facilitating an easier and consistent RoW regime; and formulating a centralised and standardised policy framework around fibre deployment, maintenance and use. New construction initiatives take into account structured cable laying plans avoiding digging and damage. The government could also consider enabling local loop unbundling as a mechanism to make already invested resource available to alternative service providers on a commercially viable basis.

Anupam Shrivastava

E-band can provide gigabit Ethernet (1 Gbps) data. E-band equipment will have a range of about 1 km. This technology is suitable for connecting small cells in urban areas where the installation of fibre is difficult. Considering all these factors, E-band technology seems to be very favourable for coping with high data demand in all areas worldwide. Further, it may be noted that BSNL has not deployed E-band radio systems.

Will the release of E-band spectrum in India help in creating higher backhaul capacity?

Rajan S. Mathews

E-band is used to effectively meet mobile broadband backhaul capacity requirements. It is not only cost effective, efficient and supports faster time to market for TSPs. Owing to its narrow beam width E-Band will give TSPs the advantage of having more sites in a given small geographic area resulting in seamless network availability and the best end-user experience. It is ideal for deployment in a dense mobile infrastructure environment in India. The release of E-band to TSPs at reasonable cost will give a huge fillip to connected and digital India and in fact significantly reduce the time to realise this important national objective.

T.V. Ramachandran

The E and V bands once opened would help greatly in decongesting the backhaul networks, thus freeing up capacity at other points of the network leading to overall improvement in the quality of service. Due to their quick deployment capabilities, these links once quickly deployed in the carrier’s networks will not only decongest the network but by smart network planning will help create extra capacity in the backhaul that can support next-gen bandwidth-intensive applications and services without degradation in the service quality. If we have to capitalise on the benefits of 4G and 5G, the opening up of the E and V bands is a necessity and not just a matter of choice.

R.S. Sharma

TRAI, in its recommendations on the “Allocation and Pricing of Microwave Access (MWA) and Microwave Backbone RF carriers” dated August 29, 2014, has inter-alia recommended that the usage of high capacity backhaul E-band (71-76 GHz/81-86 GHz) may be explored for allocation to TSPs in order to increase broadband penetration in India. TRAI has also recommended that E-band should be opened with a “light touch regulation” and the allocation should be on a “link-to-link basis”. These recommendations were reiterated by the authority in November 2015 in its response to the reference received from DoT on the former’s recommendations of October 16, 2015.

Vishant Vora

We believe these are urban-centric technologies that will work well over short distances. There are compelling use cases for this technology in urban/semi-urban areas. It can alleviate the need for fibre and can precede fibre roll-out. Service providers can lead with E-band capacities as a prelude to deeper fibre penetration. As always, making spectrum available at viable rates is crucial for expanding the reach of broadband services and thus boosting the growth of the overall economy.

Anupam Shrivastava

Yes, the release of this spectrum in India will create capacity in the backhaul network for the long term evolution technology network, where small cells will be deployed.


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