In recent years, there has been increasing realisation for the need to fiberise the backhaul. Traditionally, operators’ backhaul network was dominated by microwave, which accounted for 75-80 per cent of the network. While microwave served as an adequate backhauling medium in the 2G era, in a higher quality 4G environment, microwave-based backhaul is becoming less relevant. As such, industry stakeholders are increasingly exploring ways to increase fiberisation in the backhaul and the last mile. Various trends such as the emergence of 5G, the deployment of small cells and uptake of new-age technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT) and machine learning (ML) across enterprises have provided a further impetus to fiberisation of networks. Moreover, the surge in data consumption witnessed since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to a shift in traffic patterns and bandwidth requirements, has made the case for increasing fibre penetration even stronger.
A look at the key factors driving backhaul fiberisation in India…
Given the current surge in data traffic, the telecom sector stakeholders are increasingly realising the need to improve the capacity of their existing networks. While the current capacity per tower site is about 1 Gbps (for 2G/3G/4G services), once 5G kicks in, the capacity needed for each site will increase to 10-20 Gbps. Consequently, this will call for a fundamental change in the technology deployed at these tower sites. Industry will have to move from the traditional microwave to fibre. As per industry analysts, traditional microwave can only provide speeds of 500 Mbps-1 Gbps and even E-band microwave can provide only 1 Gbps-2.5 Gbps of speed, depending on the allocation of the number of spots. Hence, in order to achieve capacities of 10-20 Gbps, fibre will have to be deployed across all tower sites.
The current status of tower fiberisation in India is significantly poor compared to its global counterparts. At present, India has around 0.5 million tower sites, of which only 0.1 million are fiberised, accounting for about 30 per cent of the total. This is significantly lower than global standards. In South Korea, 65-70 per cent of sites have been fiberised, while in the US, Japan and China, the level of fiberisation is 75-80 per cent. For the 4G network alone, there is a need to fiberise 35-40 per cent of tower sites. The need for tower fiberisation is becoming even more pertinent with the move towards technologies such as AI, IoT, ML and cloud.
5G – A key driver
5G adoption across networks would entail the deployment of high frequency long term evolution (LTE) spectrum such as 50 MHz+ on 2300 MHz and 2600 MHz bands. This, in turn, would require a fibre-bands backhaul. Further, if 5G has to become a success, it would require each mobile site to back-haul multi-gigabit throughputs to the aggregation network and in order to do this, robust fibre connectivity is a must.
Industry analysts have highlighted that while 4G deployment initiated the process of tower fiberisation, 5G is likely to drive the trend in full motion and ultimately lead to 100 per cent tower fiberisation. As per industry reports, the site count for 5G networks will double from the current 0.5 million to around 1 million by 2022. New sites will require network densification, including deployment of small cells and increased fiberisation of tower sites.
Operators, having already realised this requirement, are actively working towards achieving this goal. Owing to the massive explosion of data, operators have significantly started stepping up backhaul readiness by increasing fiberisation and rapidly expanding their transmission backbone and the aggregation capacity to cater to additional data load. Operators including Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea Limited have started revamping their backhaul networks to have a healthy microwave-fibre mix. This enables them to leverage the fibre’s virtually unlimited capacity and extensive reach.
That said, till date, the majority of the OFC is present in core/metro networks, with limited presence in backhaul and last mile at present. Thus, if operators want to realise the benefits offered by 5G technology, they need to step up their fibre-to-the-tower (FTTT) deployments.
Backhauling small cells
In addition to 5G, the deployment of small cells will call for more fiberised backhaul. Operators are increasingly deploying small cells across their sites to better manage the growing data traffic. There is a higher concentration of data traffic in urban areas, which cannot be met by macro cells alone. In fact, industry estimates indicate that in terms of the total cost of ownership, especially in urban areas, small cells are a more attractive option than macro cells as they render cost savings of about 40 per cent in site rentals and energy costs. While small cells bring cost benefits, their efficacy is mainly dependent on the availability of a fibre connection. Small cell deployments often utilise millimetre wave spectrum, relying heavily on fibre cabled connections for the backhaul portion of the network.
Thus, a fiberised backhaul is essential to support small cell deployment in urban areas as the use of microwave backhaul brings with it operational complexities and limits network performance. Moreover, increasing consumption of data indoors is compelling operators to step up their small cell deployments, which, in turn, is expected to create greater demand for more fibre backhaul.
Further, as we step into the 5G phase, the deployment of small cells will also increase. The number of small cells required for densifying 5G networks is that 5-10 times higher in comparison to those required for the densification of 4G networks. In fact, 5G requires small cells installed as close as 100 feet apart for enabling network densification. An increase in the rate of small cell deployment will also lead to an increase in the need for fiberising backhaul.
New-age technologies add to fibre uptake
The uptake of various new-age technologies across enterprises has also been pushing the demand for fibre deployment. Industries are deploying advanced technologies such as AI and ML to become increasingly interconnected and bring faster services to customers. With the growth of these technologies globally, optic fibre networks are becoming essential, given the volume of data, scale and speed required to analyse the information. Successful use cases around new-age technologies such as augmented reality/ virtual reality, ML and AI are dependent on a combination of factors including edge computing, 5G and Edge. These factors, in turn, need fibre to be deployed extensively across networks. The sustenance of 5G edge computing is essentially dependent on infrastructure structures that can provide lower latency, higher capacity and better speeds. This is where fibre comes in. According to a VIAVI study, by default relationship of 5G and edge computing, fibre optic cabling becomes integrated into the network. The rise of 5G relies on the expansion of fibre optic cabling and as a result, all three factors scale at relatively the same pace. In fact, as per ZD Net, eventually edge computing would bring fast services to customers as close as their nearest wireless base stations. This would require massive fibre optic pipes to supply the necessary backhaul. Moreover, many industry analysts believe that the benefits of edge computing for various ML applications can only be realised with a highly available, real-time capable fibre optic network. Since low latency and high transmission speeds are prerequisites for various ML use cases, widespread deployment of OFC is the best way forward.
The proliferation of high bandwidth services, surging data demand, the government’s thrust to digitalisation and operators’ changing focus on 5G are the key drivers, creating massive OFC requirements across backhaul networks. Further, as Indian enterprises adopt new technologies such as IoT, AI, ML, big data and blockchain, the consumption of data is only going to increase. In order to produce and transmit more data, a strong fibre infrastructure will be needed.