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Interview with Vodafone Idea Limited's Vishant Vora

February 15, 2019
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Interview with Vodafone Idea Limited's V...
Vodafone Idea Limited is looking to fast-track  the integration of two pan-Indian networks in a bid to leverage synergies in its operations, spectrum and network capacity. At the same time, it is focusing on the deployment of advanced and robust technologies to make the integrated network scalable and future ready. In an interview with tele.net, Vishant Vora, chief technology officer, Vodafone Idea Limited, shares his views on new network technologies, merger synergies, the uptake of 4G services and the future of 5G in India...

How has the Indian telecom technology landscape evolved over the past year?

With the consolidation in the Indian telecom industry, the large remaining players have access to sufficient spectrum to expand their broadband coverage and capacity. This has led to massive growth in data usage in the past one year. Vodafone Idea has been expanding its 4G coverage across the country, and has reached more than 770 million Indians so far.

We have stayed focused on enhancing our customer experience through technology deployments. To this end, we have deployed Massive MIMO in all major cities. We are the first mover in the adoption of cloud across networks and IT applications. We already have multiple key network applications in a single cloud and will soon be live with more than 100 Edge cloud locations across India. In terms of latency, Vodafone India traditionally had the lowest latencies in the market owing to its superior architecture. We aim to maintain this trend in the merged company as well. Various initiatives are in progress to further improve latency.

From a technological standpoint, what are the synergies that the Vodafone-Idea merger has brought in? What are the key challenges?

Vodafone Idea is undertaking the world’s largest network integration through meticulous pre-merger planning and rigorous post-merger implementation. We are partnering with the best in the industry to build a robust, future-fit network. Synergy in several areas of operations, and particularly in network and spectrum, is what led to this mega merger. Some of the areas I would like to highlight are:

Joint spectrum advantage: Vodafone Idea is the leader in spectrum holding, with 1850 MHz of spectrum, a large part of which is liberalised. With a large quantum of TDD (time division duplex) spectrum, we have enough lever to boost capacity on the network.

Quick improvement in coverage: For example, in West Bengal (excluding Kolkata), where we consolidated the network in December 2018, the number of 4G sites for Idea customers has nearly doubled. Similarly, Vodafone customers are able to experienc 4G  in the Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and Madhya Pradesh circles.

• Huge reduction in network operational expenses: Network integration has resulted in rental savings, optimisation of loading and reduction in energy costs.

Since both networks are loaded with equipment from different vendors, we are executing the consolidation carefully to ensure there is no/minimal customer impact. Within the first five months of the merger, the radio network has been consolidated for eight circles – West Bengal (excluding Kolkata), Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (excluding Hyderabad), Madhya Pradesh, Assam, the Northeast and Jammu & Kashmir. We have also completed 4G consolidation in Bengaluru and added 4G spectrum in Mumbai. Third-party app reports and customer experience indicators show a significant improvement in 4G speed and reach for both Vodafone and Idea customers.

What has been your experience in terms of data uptake on your network?

We have witnessed significant data growth on our network and are adding extensive data capacity to take advantage of this demand. By March 2020, our data capacity will increase 2.5x that in September 2018. We are doing extensive data caching to improve latency and reduce the amount of data that needs to be carried across the telecom network.

How is the role of fibre evolving in telco networks?

Fibre has always been the backbone of any telecom network. It is becoming more important in the current 4G scenario and will be crucial for future 5G networks. With the Vodafone-Idea merger, the fibre infrastructure of the combined entity has increased substantially to provide the strategic advantage required in the present data age. We see our fibre footprint growing substantially over the next few years.

What are your views on the adoption of SDN and NFV in the Indian telecom space?

We believe in convergent cloud and Edge computing as key strategies for enabling service delivery at acceptable price points. We are looking at virtualisation not just in the core and transport layers but also in the radio space. We are confident that the ecosystem will evolve rapidly.

What is your view on the market readiness for 5G in India? What are the key requirements?

Telecom service providers are currently focused on optimising 4G networks and making them 5G ready. The 5G ecosystem, including handsets, is developing as well. More importantly, we need to design and successfully pilot India-specific use cases for 5G. Trials are expected to commence this year and likely to go up to 2020. The need for more quality spectrum will arise thereafter, and it must be made affordable to the industry for making broadband accessible to all and for achieving the larger vision of Digital India. While the business cases need to be proven, we are ensuring that all new procurements for networks are 5G compliant and upgradable when needed.

Currently, most discussions and trials are focused on eMBB (enhanced mobile broadband) use cases while the other use case of ultra-low latency is being discussed at various forums. The commercial viability of the same still needs to be determined. Similarly, massive IoT (internet of things) scenarios are a few years away, especially as narrowband-IoT and other IoT forms have not taken great shape in 4G.

The cost of deployment and the price realisations will be major drivers for 5G. There seems to be a lot of ambition around smart cities, but the capital to enable them is not always available. If the installation work and capital costs are shared, it would make deployment easier. For example, why should multiple operators have to dig the road to lay their fibre? Why cannot a common provider create the network with enough redundant paths and work with a longer payback period? This will not only bring down the cost, but will also increase availability. Cities are also setting up piped gas grids. Creating a common infrastructure like that for telecom can help.

What is your outlook for 3G and 4G services for the medium and long terms?

While 5G is the future, we believe that 3G and 4G are here to stay for many more years. Considering that most of the voice traffic is still on GSM, 3G will play a critical role in the medium term. In the long term, I see traffic shifting to 4G, which will provide opportunities to shut down 3G in a few markets. We expect that in the medium term, 4G will continue to be a prominent coverage layer supporting 5G in higher bands. In the long term, post its introduction in the sub-1 GHz band, 5G coverage may begin to match 4G.

As technology head of the biggest telco in India, what challenges do you foresee for the industry at large?

Technological advances and faster internet connections will continue to revolutionise the way we live. Video streaming on ultra high definition TV screens, virtual reality applications, real-time online gaming and smart homes are the future and they have one thing in common: they require high capacity, low latency network connections.

What are your views on the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018?

It is a progressive policy. Its key objectives – providing broadband to all, attracting investments, creating jobs, ensuring data protection and privacy, and offering a choice to consumers – set the path for realising the digital aspirations of the 1.3 billion Indian citizens. Speedy implementation of NDCP 2018, which rightly treats telecom as a critical enabler of a digital economy, will be a critical step towards strengthening the telecom sector and benefiting all stakeholders.

Which are the key technology trends that will shape the future of Indian telecom?

Premium content and cross-industry alliances: Vodafone Idea will stay focused on co-creating value for its customers and partners.

Early adoption of 5G: We expect a significant increase in data demand and are gearing up our network to cater to such demand (IoT, 4K videos, etc.). Vodafone Idea is pushing the technology frontiers, already embedding key 5G principles in state-of-the-art 4G+ deployments.

Cloud-based architecture for RAN: Generic processor-based servers can be used to provide a runtime environment for software components.

Evolution of machine learning-based techniques: These will optimise the network based on the learning done earlier in the network, thus enabling a quicker response to address a situation.

 
 
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