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Fibre Future: Government programmes and 5G to drive demand

March 23, 2018

The exponential growth in data traffic has made it imperative for the telecom industry to undertake greater investments in fibre-based infrastructure. Fibre offers several benefits such as virtually unlimited capacity, low cost of ownership and the ability to support multiple technologies. Fibre is also an ideal communication medium for next-generation technologies such as the internet of things. Therefore, most leading global telecom operators are augmenting their optical fibre cable (OFC) network to deliver high speed data services.

Status of fibre deployment

According to Manoj Sinha, minister of communications, the OFC network in India has increased from 0.7 million km to 1.4 million km over the past three years. Increasing fibre deployments in the backhaul and last-mile access networks, government initiatives such as BharatNet and Network for Spectrum, and pan-Indian cable TV digitisation have been the key drivers for the OFC market in the country.

However, less than 25 per cent of the telecom towers in India are fiberised as compared to 65-80 per cent in the US and China. As per EY, the total fibre deployed-to-population ratio is 1.4x in the US, 0.9x in China, but only 0.1x in India. Tower backhaul in the country operates largely on microwave. However, this capacity is quickly getting exhausted, leading to deterioration in quality of service. Therefore, fibre-based connectivity is needed to ensure smooth delivery of wireless services.

Key growth enablers

BharatNet: OFC roll-out is getting a steady push from the BharatNet project. The project seeks to provide high speed broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats across the country. The first phase of the project covering 100,000 gram panchayats has been completed. As of February 11, 2018, around 262,947 km of OFC has been laid in 112,049 gram panchayats while 102,546 are service ready.

The second phase of the project, which will connect the remaining 150,000 gram panchayats, is expected to be completed by March 2019. Under this, the government aims to lay 0.4 million km of OFC, thereby doubling the existing optical fibre footprint in the country. The second phase is proposed to be significantly different from the first phase in terms of its implementation strategy and the mediums deployed. Along with the central PSUs, state governments and private sector agencies would be involved in the the implementation of the project. In addition to underground fibre deployed in the first phase, an optimal mix of mediums (aerial, radio and satellite) will be used in the second phase for connecting gram panchayats. Also, last-mile connectivity, through Wi-Fi or any other suitable broadband technology, has been made an integral part of the second phase.

Smart Cities Mission: A smart city is founded on highly advanced ICT infrastructure with devices connected through telecom networks. The data generated by these devices is leveraged for decision-making and developing applications. To this end, the devices need to be connected through high speed and low latency networks that are capable of transporting the huge volumes of data to big data analytics engines to turn the information into actionable insights. With its unlimited capacity, fibre is the perfect communication technology for providing high speed internet in a smart city. OFC also facilitates the installation of sensors, which are crucial to the development of smart solutions.

Under the Smart Cities Mission, the government plans to develop 100 smart cities at a total proposed investment of Rs 2.03 trillion. Most of the cities selected under the mission have submitted their budget proposals for citywide OFC deployments including ducting for OFC networks, deployment of OFC for command and control centres, and other OFC-related civil works. However, most cities expect telecom operators as well as other service providers to lay the fibre at their own expense.

Roll-out of 5G networks: The development of 5G standards has started, with the 3rd Generation Partnership Project recently ratifying the non-stand-alone 5G new radio specification. During the past year, several telecom operators and vendors initiated 5G trials globally with the aim of setting up the desired 5G ecosystem. The Indian market, too, has taken early steps to create a favourable ecosystem for 5G deployment. The government has formed a high-level committee to evaluate and approve roadmaps for the large-scale roll-out of 5G in the country as well as for the development of relevant 5G use cases.

Fibre-based backhaul is a critical element in the deployment of 5G, which requires low latency, low interference and high network capacity in order to transfer data back and forth to the core network. Therefore, the percentage of fibre-based backhaul in India needs to be increased from the current 20 per cent to 70-80 per cent. 5G will also require a significant increase in small cell deployment, with each small cell backhauled through fibre.

RoW issues

For several years, securing right of way (RoW) has been the biggest hurdle in the expansion of fibre infrastructure in the country. The long-drawn-out application process and exorbitant administrative charges have discouraged telecom service providers from undertaking significant fibre roll-outs. Further, variable and complex procedures across states and non-uniformity in levies greatly impacted fibre roll-outs across the country.

To resolve these issues, the government notified the new Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules in November 2016 laying down a clear framework to ensure the expeditious grant of approvals in a transparent and uniform manner and improve the coordination between telecom companies and government authorities. The rules are applicable to only land owned by government bodies, such as central and state departments and municipal corporations. For private land, the RoW rules notified by different state governments are applicable.

The rules prescribe standard procedures for the grant of RoW approvals and specify the list of documents that need to be submitted for obtaining permissions. These include the licence granted by the central government, the details of the underground infrastructure being laid by them, and the time and duration of the work. The rules have rationalised administrative expenses for laying down of fibre across the country to a maximum of Rs 1,000 per km.

Further, the new rules have made the process of removal of fibre infrastructure more fair and transparent. Earlier, if a company had laid OFC on land owned by a municipal corporation and if the authority required that land for some other purpose, the company would receive a notice to remove the OFC as quickly as possible. However, under the new rules, when the appropriate authority considers it necessary to remove some telecom infrastructure, it will issue a notice to the company asking it to submit a detailed plan for removal or alteration of such infrastructure within a period of 30 days of the notice. The concerned authority will grant 90 days to the telecom company to remove or alter its telecom infrastructure.

While the RoW rules have attempted to ease the roll-out of fibre infrastructure, their on-the-ground implementation remains a key challenge. A number of states are yet to implement the rules in practicality including the appointment of a nodal officer to facilitate clearances from various authorities. Some industry experts are of the view that local bodies use RoW as a revenue generating mechanism instead of levying charges to cover the costs of fibre deployment.

Conclusion

Telecom operators are expected to deploy 4G base stations on more than 80 per cent of their 2G sites in the next few years. Consequently, tower fiberisation levels are likely to rise to 70 per cent by 2020. Moreover, with government initiatives such as BharatNet and the Smart Cities Mission gaining momentum, and the industry gearing up for the commercial roll-out of 5G services, the OFC market is poised to grow considerably. Further, the emergence of new architectures such as Wi-Fi offload and active radio frequency solutions that require low latency and high capacity fibre access is expected to drive the demand for OFC. However, the effective implementation of the RoW policy is critical to facilitate the expansion of fibre infrastructure across the country.

 
 

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