In 2020, digital infrastructure emerged as the bedrock of the new normal amidst the pandemic. Covid-19 led to a surge in indoor voice and data consumption. As everything moved online, the pressure on telecom networks grew manyfold. Consequently, the country saw a significant network upgradation by telecom infrastructure players and operators.
In line with these changing market needs, telcos and towercos have been scaling up the deployment of in-building solutions (IBS). According to industry experts, work-from-home will increase the demand for fixed broadband and in-building solutions such as fibre-to-the-buildings, and drive the creation of new Wi-Fi hotspots inside buildings. This will help carry the fibre bandwidth to individual consumer devices.
On the regulatory front, in March 2020, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released its recommendations on broadening the scope of IP-1s. These recommendations will facilitate the accelerated roll-out of digital infrastructure in the country.
A look at the key developments in the telecom infrastructure segment during 2020 and the way forward…
Connecting the unconnected
The industry continued to focus on bringing more remote regions in the ambit of wireless connectivity. The Ministry of Communications, in December 2020, sanctioned the installation of 392 mobile towers of various telecom operators in the eastern and south-eastern parts of Tripura. The government has also invited tenders for setting up around 150 mobile towers in the tribal areas of Visakhapatnam.
Meanwhile, Reliance Jio launched its mobile services in the Zanskar area in Ladakh by installing four mobile towers, one each in Pibiting, Padum, Akshow and Abran.
Traction in subsea cable space
There was significant activity in the subsea cable space during the year. After the successful completion of the optical submarine cable system connecting Chennai, India, and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands in December 2020, the union cabinet approved the proposal for provisioning submarine optical fibre cable connectivity between Kochi and the Lakshadweep Islands, entailing a cost of Rs 10.72 billion. The project entails the provision of a direct communication link through a dedicated submarine optical fibre cable between Kochi and 11 islands of Lakshadweep – Kavaratti, Kalpeni, Agati, Amini, Androth, Minicoy, Bangaram, Bitra, Chetlat, Kiltan and Kadmat. The project is expected to be completed by May 2023 and will be funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited has been nominated as the project execution agency and Telecommunications Consultants India Limited as the technical consultant for the project.
1,000 days promise for laying fibre in villages
In August 2020, the government announced the GhartakFibre project under the BharatNet initiative to extend optical fibre connectivity to villages across India. As part of the project, over 600,000 Indian villages will be connected to the optical fibre network within 1,000 days.
In 2020, the Goa government cleared the State Telecommunication Infrastructure Policy, 2020, which will adopt single-window clearance for setting up mobile towers in the state. Further, the companies will have to pay Rs 50,000 as a one-time licence fee to local governing bodies and no additional permit will be needed. If a company wants to install a tower on a private property, it will require an NOC from the landowner before applying for permission.
Meanwhile, the Jammu and Kashmir administrative council approved the J&K Communication and Connectivity Infrastructure Policy. With this policy, the government aims to improve telecom and internet connectivity in the union territory (UT) to fulfil objectives under the National Broadband Mission. The new policy includes right-of-way (RoW) provisions to ensure hassle-free approval in a time-bound manner through a single-window clearance mechanism.
In November 2020, the Punjab cabinet approved a set of new telecom guidelines under a single-window policy to replace the existing norms. These guidelines will supersede the Telecom Policies notified on December 5, 2013, and December 11, 2015. According to industry experts, the decision will enable speedier permissions for the installation of telecom towers, masts, poles, etc.
Digital infrastructure under Smart Cities Mission
To tackle the pandemic, smart cities converted their integrated command and control centres into war rooms for real-time data monitoring, using the government’s data dashboard to provide up-to-date information about the status of Covid cases in different administrative zones of cities.
In July 2020, Sterlite Power completed its Gurugram Smart City project for creating an intra-city fibre network to meet the city’s communication needs. In this project, Sterlite Power installed four underground ducts that carry fibre, connecting all the bus stops, schools, police stations, government buildings along with various private buildings. The entire route is updated through the geographic information system (GIS) along with an integrated fibre monitoring system for proactive monitoring, and preventive and corrective maintenance.
During the year, Infosys partnered with Qualcomm to offer smart cities solutions by leveraging the latter’s accelerator programme. Under this partnership, the smart cities solutions offered by Infosys will leverage Qualcomm’s proprietary framework for smart spaces, which offers features such as building and resource management, physical asset management, safety and security.
Meanwhile, TRAI issued a paper on smart cities infrastructure, highlighting the need for a standardised ICT solution for smart cities. According to the regulator, the lack of regulation and standards poses a risk for smart cities. as it prevents data sharing, and integration of devices and applications, and increases costs. According to TRAI, smart cities. plan and deploy technology solutions in their own way without any common framework to implement a technology, which has resulted in the emergence of non-standardised proprietary devices and solutions. In this regard, the regulator suggests that the purpose for the creation of smart cities will only be achieved with a holistic approach, supported by globally acceptable standards that enable fully interoperable solutions that can be deployed and replicated at scale.
Focus on small cells
Small cells are picking up in a big way in the country. These cells play an important role in covering large complexes, whether they are offices or residences or colonies. As the majority of data is now generated indoors, the need for deploying indoor small cells is on the rise. The rise in IoT and M2M deployments is also promoting the use of small cells.
Since small cell deployment offers several advantages, telcos in India have been scaling up their deployments. Reliance Jio has been at the forefront of small cell deployments with its exclusive partners, Samsung and Airspan. The operator is rolling out the technology early to modernise its network. In April 2020, Vodafone Idea deployed over 2,100 small cells in Delhi and NCR for improving customer experience in congested areas such as Govindpuri, Gandhi Nagar and Lakshmi Nagar. By and large, Nokia is undertaking the deployment of small cells, single radio access network (RAN) and massive MIMO technologies for the operator.
Bharti Airtel, too, has been active in the small cell space, scaling up deployments to build a future-ready network. Besides, it has been actively involved in developing innovative small cell solutions. In May 2020, Airtel, in partnership with Sercomm, a leading Chinese manufacturer and supplier of telecom equipment, launched the world’s first virtual RAN-based TDD small cell. The small cell offers a plug-and-play approach for the cloud radio network connection. The small cells will deliver enhanced efficiencies, improve operational reliability and facilitate a heterogeneous network.
Active infrastructure sharing
With a growing focus on digitalisation and 5G, the discussions around active infrastructure sharing are gathering steam. Infrastructure upgrades and network densification have become crucial, but these cannot be done by telcos alone. It is imperative to bring in more participants in this space, especially those that have expertise in rapidly deploying robust telecom infrastructure through innovative business models. As per BEREC, while there is a cost saving of 16-35 per cent in sharing passive infrastructure such as towers, this can go up to as much as 45 per cent in active infrastructure sharing.
In view of this, TRAI came out with a consultation paper in September 2019, seeking stakeholders’ views on how to enhance the role of IP-1s. In March 2020, the regulator released its recommendations on the subject. In its recommendations, the regulator suggested active infrastructure sharing for establishing wireless RAN, wireline access networks and transmission links. The recommendations are currently being reviewed by DoT. The expanded scope of registration will allow towercos to own, establish, maintain and work with equipment and systems such as optical fibre, tower, feeders cable, antennas, base stations, IBS and DAS.
New growth avenues
Towercos are in discussion with players from various industries, which may ultimately become edge computing tenants. By deploying edge data centres on their sites, towercos can onboard customers with stringent latency requirements such as content delivery network providers and cloud providers, which support edge-specific applications.
That apart, towercos are gearing up to play a major role in smart city development. They offer a range of solutions for smart cities including passive infrastructure, small cells, Wi-Fi and fibre connectivity. Further, for tower companies, small cell deployments can create various new revenue streams such as fiberisation, radio frequency planning and Level 1 maintenance of telcos’ equipment. In February 2020, Dehradun Smart City Limited collaborated with Indus Towers to install 60 smart poles and 70 smart towers, and lay an underground fibre network spanning 100 km in PPP mode. In Karnataka, Indus Towers is deploying smart poles, which can help offer Wi-Fi services across an area of around 300 metres. Further, towercos are well positioned to leverage the fibre opportunity with their existing experience in managing distributed infrastructure assets. TRAI has recently recommended enhancing the scope of IP-1s, allowing them to take up a bigger role in deploying active components such as fibre, antennaes and Wi-Fi.
Towercos’ know-how in securing contracts from municipalities for small cell sites is enabling them to strengthen their value proposition. To this end, they are exploring fiberised small cells to position themselves as integrated players. Indus Towers and Bharti Infratel had stated that their combined entity will explore new growth areas such as fibre sharing, small cells, data centres and Wi-Fi offloading.
Key deals and investments in infrastructure assets
In a major development, in September 2020, after a span of over two years, Bharti Infratel and Indus Towers decided to proceed with their long-pending merger deal. Bharti Infratel’s board of directors gave a final go-ahead to the scheme of arrangement between the two towercos.
Earlier, Brookfield Infrastructure Partners LP had completed the acquisition of Reliance Jio’s telecom tower assets for $3.4 billion. An equity investment worth $3.4 billion was made by Brookfield and its institutional partners, of which Brookfield is investing $600 million. Brookfield acquired 135,000 recently constructed communication towers that form the infrastructure backbone of Reliance Jio’s telecom business.
Given the hypercompetitive market situation and the explosive data demand in the new normal, the need for network infrastructure is only going to increase in the coming years. According to the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association (TAIPA), the optical fibre laying speed needs to be increased nearly 3.6 times to realise the government’s vision of connecting every village with broadband within 1,000 days. As per TAIPA, to achieve this vision, the speed of laying cable will have to be increased from the existing average of 350 km per day to over 1,251 km per day.
Going forward, the commercialisation of new-generation technologies such as 4G, 5G and IoT will require superior network performance as well as a diverse infrastructure mix.
By Shikha Swaroop