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Interview with Ankit Agarwal, Head, Global Sales, Telecom Products, Sterlite Technologies.

August 31, 2017
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As the industry embarks on the path of creating a favourable 5G ecosystem in India, fibre deployments will become critical. In an interview with tele.net, Ankit Agarwal, head, global sales, telecom products, Sterlite Technologies, talks about how the 5G landscape is expected to evolve in India and the role of fibre in supporting it. Excerpts…

How is the 5G ecosystem expected to evolve in India? What will be the growth drivers?

In the wake of growing awareness around internet of things (IoT) and the use cases it presents to Indian businesses and consumers, 5G will open a new era of opportunities for telecom operators and ecosystem partners in the country. Although it is difficult to get an accurate estimate of the market size right now, IoT is expected to provide a $15 billion market opportunity for Indian businesses by 2020, according to officials of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). Along with this, there is likely to be an unprecedented growth in the number of smartphone users in India, which is expected to overtake the US in terms of smartphone shipments by 2019. Given this, analysts are optimistic that India will hold around 15 per cent of the world’s smartphone market share by that period – Indian consumers are ready for 5G.

What are the challenges pertaining to 5G infrastructure deployment in the country? How can these be addressed?

Indian operators need to address the issues surrounding 5G infrastructure and deployment. Challenges involving regulatory policies, investments and infrastructure readiness need to be addressed on priority. The challenges ahead for telecom operators in India are multifold compared to their peers in the rest of the world. A diverse geography, a disparate population and a disparity in economic distribution pose serious challenges to operators, preventing uniform investments across different telecom circles. Also, issues such as right of way (RoW) have created uncertainty in fibre investments across different states. The rising cost of airwaves and the issues involved in migrating to new technologies bring additional challenges. Moreover, the industry’s performance on key indicators such as network speed, coverage and customer service is not satisfactory. For example, the average internet speed in India stands at 3.5 Mbps compared to 29 Mbps in South Korea, 15 Mbps in the US and 4.3 Mbps in China.

That said, this is an exciting time for India, and the impact of 5G and its associated enablement of machine-to-machine, IoT, autonomous driving and augmented reality/virtual reality can be anticipated. Given the 5G requirement for latency reduction and much higher speeds, fibre deployment in the country will need to increase by at least two to three times, from 16-18 million fibre kilometre (fkm) per year at present. 5G will also require a multifold increase in small cell deployment, with each small cell having backhaul on fibre. The percentage of tower backhaul on fibre for operators will need to increase significantly, from 20 per cent to 70-80 per cent levels.

What role is fibre expected to play in supporting the 5G ecosystem in India?

The growth of 5G will be fuelled by a sharp hike in consumer data and the proliferation of IoT devices. The fact that 5G networks will have to support bursty data from emerging applications like video-on demand, IoT and smart cities also makes backhaul a critical concern. In several markets, operators are turning to fibre backhaul as an alternative to costly microwave technologies. The fact that fibre-based networks are capable of delivering unlimited bandwidth makes them a winning formula for telecom investments.

What is the current level of fibre investment in the industry?

A comparison of optic fibre cable (OFC) roll-outs among the top performing telecom markets shows that the fkm per capita is much less in India as compared to several other key markets. For example, the fkm per capita for China with 1.3 billion people is 0.87 whereas that for India with 1.2 billion people is just 0.09 (one-tenth of China’s consumption). In developed markets such as the US and Japan, the score is 1.3 and higher.

What steps has the government taken to support 5G in India?

DoT’s amendment of the unified licence scheme for active infrastructure sharing and the revised public-private partnership model for the BharatNet project adopted last year are two timely steps taken to boost infrastructure sharing by operators. A consensus on RoW is also expected across all states. A unified RoW policy will pave the way for smooth fibre roll-outs, resulting in faster service rendering.

What role can operators play in enabling early adoption of 5G in India?

Telecom operators need to pump in more funds in optical fibre and related technologies. With fibre playing a pivotal role in improving broadband connectivity and building robust 4G/5G backhaul capabilities, operators will find the investment worth their while. As fibre penetration improves, telecom operators will be in a position to lower tariffs and identify new monetisation opportunities. ARPUs will improve, and the market will stabilise gradually.

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