The year 2021 saw an increased focus, both from private players and the government, on strengthening internet and broadband links across the county. Fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) continued to be a focus area as the demand for high-sp­e­ed connectivity remained high with peo­ple continuing to work from home owing to the ongoing pandemic. Internet exch­an­­ges also emerged as a new focus area for many operators and internet service pro­viders (ISPs). Satellite broadband was yet another area that gained attention from in­dustry players as well as the government.

On the policy front, the government came out with some key recommendations and policy moves to mainstream satcom. Apart from this, the concept of public Wi-Fi gained traction during the year as the government focused its efforts on setting up public Wi-Fi hotspots through its PM-WANI mission. In addition, operators took initiatives to expand their 4G coverage. There was also considerable progress re­corded under the BharatNet project. In a major milestone, the government appro­v­ed the implementation of the BharatNet project through the public-private partnership (PPP) model.

A look at the key trends that dominated the internet and broadband space during 2021 and the future outlook…

FTTH continues to be in the limelight

The data requirement of the population is continuously growing. The Covid-19-in­duced lockdown and the digitalisation and virtualisation trend that followed have added to the data traffic. This has spurred a digital revolution in the country.

The average data usage per month has grown at an exponential rate of 76 per cent over the past five years, owing to the continued increase in data consumption. This is expected to increase further in the aftermath of Covid-19 as work-from-home, vir­­tual meetings and online classes become a norm. As per recent estimates, the average data usage per month has reached 13.5 GB. The rural segment is also emerging as a key growth driver, with rural consumption accounting for 45 per cent of the overall data usage.

Among the several transformational changes that the pandemic ushered in, the key one has been the large-scale adoption of FTTH broadband. FTTH services emerged as an ideal medium to deliver high speed data as the country shifted to tele-working and virtual education. As per in­dustry reports, FTTH connections in India grew from 0.7 million in 2014 to 4 million in 2020, and are forecast to reach 10 million by 2025. Further, as per Nokia’s MBiT Re­po­rt 2021, India’s fixed broadband subs­criber base grew by 12 per cent year on year to reach 22 million in 2020. This gro­w­th was driven by the initiatives taken by op­erators as well as ISPs in the FTTH space.

While telcos bundled their FTTH offe­rings with OTT platforms such as Ama­zon Prime, Hotstar and Netflix, ISPs too started offering bundled plans. In a bid to compete with the likes of JioFiber, Air­tel Xstream Fiber and BSNL Bharat Fiber, ISPs such as ACT Fibernet introduced unlimited data plans at upgraded speeds. ACT Fibernet revamped its bro­adband plans across key cities such as Be­n­­galuru, Ch­ennai, Delhi, Coimbatore, Madurai and Hyderabad.

Internet exchanges come to the fore

The idea of internet exchanges gained significance during the pandemic as most of India’s workforce started working from home. As such, wireline broadband beca­me essential for seamless connectivity, and there was an immense surge in traffic and demand for data. The capabilities of the internet exchanges helped meet this inc­re­ase in demand.

ISPs actively worked towards ex­panding their internet exchange footprint. For instance, in December 2021, Extreme IX, a carrier and data centre-neutral internet exchange, launched two new points of presence (PoPs) in the Janakpuri and Guru­gram regions of Delhi-NCR. These PoPs will exchange over 200 GB of data per second and will act as an enabler for local ISPs to extend faster and more affordable internet service to custo­me­rs while also localising content. Un­derstanding and addressing the increasing demand for high speed internet and gr­owing data consumption, Extreme IX has been aggressively working towards multiplying its PoPs to cater to the projected re­quirements. With the launch of these new PoPs, Extreme IX currently has four op­erational units in Netmagic DC Noida, Webwerks DC Noi-da, Sify DC Gurugram and an independent PoP in Janakpuri.

Owing to the critical role of internet exchanges in strengthening the digital in­frastructure of the country, the government has taken special interest in regulating this space. To this end, in December 2021, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) issued a consultation pa­per on the regulatory framework for pro­mo­ting the data economy by setting up data centres, content delivery networks, and interconnect exchanges in India.

Going forward, as many as seven new internet exchange nodes are expected to be launched in Uttar Pradesh. These no­des will be located in Meerut, Agra, Kan­pur, Lucknow, Prayagraj, Varanasi and Gora­kh­pur. To date, only one internet ex­ch­­ange node has been operational, at Gautam Buddha Nagar in Uttar Pradesh. With seven new internet exchanges, the in­ternet ecosystem will be further streng­thened in the state.

Satellite broadband takes centre stage

Of late, satcom has received attention from both the government and private players. While operators have always preferred terrestrial solutions, they are now looking at satellite communication as a viable and cost-effective alternative to meeting the ever-growing connectivity re­quirements of users. Recently, in July 2021, Bharti Airtel chairman Sunil Mittal announced that the Bharti Group’s satellite arm, OneWeb, is on track to offering services in India from May 2022. He added that its offering will benefit other telcos as well. It will take broadband to the underserved and remote areas of the country. While Airtel has been making rapid strides in the satcom space, other operators are not far behind. In February 2021, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Li­mited (BSNL) awarded a contract to ST En­gi­neering iDirect to augment satellite bandwidth in the offshore Indian islands of Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep un­der a Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund project funded by the De­part­ment of Telecommunications. The project will utilise the Newtec Dialog platform to provide internet as well as 2G, 3G and 4G services.

On the policy and regulatory front, the private sector has been pushing for a more liberalised policy framework. The government too, on its part, has taken some key initiatives in this direction. In May 2021, the government came out with a new standard for interface requirements for communication and broadcast networks for fixed-satellite service/broadcasting-satellite service as mandatory technical requ­ire­ments. These new technical requirements are based on open, non-restrictive specifications and are fully aligned with the capabilities provided by next-generation satcom technologies, such as high throughput satellites (HTS), non-geostationary orbit satellites, LEO, MEO and HEO. They are also aligned with the recommendations of the National Digital Communications Po­li­cy, 2018, as well as TRAI’s  recommendations made along these lines.

During the year, TRAI also released recommendations on “Licensing frame­work for satellite-based connectivity for low bit rate applications”. These recomm­endations are expected to drive exponential growth in the sector, and provide so­cio-economic benefits to the country. The recommendations, when implemented, would enable cost reductions, remove su­p­ply constraints, and allow ease of doing business, helping bring satcom technology into the mainstream as a viable, cost-effective connectivity means to power India’s digital dreams.

Connecting the unconnected with PM-WANI

Public Wi-Fi has emerged as a successful means of enhancing broadband proliferation among the masses globally. For India, too, public Wi-Fi can be seen as a low-cost option for reaching unserved citizens. To this end, the recently laun­ch­ed PM-WANI initiative is a big leap to­wards providing Wi-Fi ubiquity in India. Under the initiative, public Wi-Fi networks will be set up by public data office aggregators (PDOAs), which will provide these services through public data offices. So far, around 123 PDOAs have signed up and around 56,270 Wi-Fi hot­spots have been deployed.

In August 2021, the government anno­unced that RailTel had submitted a proposal to the Department of Telecommu­ni­cations (DoT) for leveraging its network in rural India and its collaborative broadband services model to provide PM-WANI-enabled community Wi-Fi services. Mean­while, in June 2021, HFCL, in collaboration with the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), announced its plan of setting up the second PM-WANI-powered connectivity network in Baidebettu village, Karnataka. This network will provide high speed Wi-Fi internet to over 9,000 residents of the poorly connected village located in Brah­ma­vara ta­luk, Udupi district. The project will entail the setting up of a robust outdoor Wi-Fi network for pro­viding broadband in­ternet connectivity to the entire village population. The outdoor network will use HFCL IO’s TIP Op­en Wi-Fi-based access points, point-to-point radios, solar-power-over-Ether­net de­vices and other network equipment. Wi-Fi network authentication and regulatory monitoring will be powered by i2e1 core solutions, which will also act as the PDOA under the PM-WANI mo­del. This development came after the huge success of HFCL’s first PM-WANI model village deployment in the small remote village of Baslambi in Haryana. HFCL in­tends to replicate the model and once again demo­n­s­trate the strength of the PM-WANI con­cept, powered by TIP’s multivendor compatible OpenWi-Fi capabilities.

Progress under BharatNet project

As per government data, as of June 2021, data consumption on the BharatNet network crossed 13,000 TB. At present, Wi-Fi hotspots have been installed in 104,400 gram panchayats across India. Of these, hotspots are operational in 64,927 gram panchayats. State-wise, Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of gram panchayats with Wi-Fi infra­str­ucture in place, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Pun­jab. Uttar Pradesh also accounts for the hi­ghest number of active users, ap­p­roxi­mately 0.8 million. However, the average data consumption per active user lies well below the national average of 1.18 GB. Chhattisgarh, on the other hand, has 3,664 service-ready gram panchayats, of which 3,662 have operational Wi-Fi hotspots. Further, 96 per cent of service-ready gram panchayats in Punjab provide operational Wi-Fi services, with the average data consumption crossing 10 GB. Ka­r­nataka, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Hima­chal Pra­desh, Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Chandigarh and Kerala are some of the states/UTs where over 50 per cent of the service-ready gram panchayats have operational Wi-Fi services. Meanwhile, Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland and the An­daman & Nicobar Islands do not have a single gram panchayat equipped with Wi-Fi hotspots.

In July 2021, The Union cabinet app­roved the revised implementation of BharatNet through PPP mode in villages across 16 states with a viability gap funding (VGF) of Rs 190.41 billion. The cabinet de­ci­ded that the total expenditure to cover 360,000 villages in 16 states will be Rs 294.3 billion, including the amount for VGF. As per industry sour­ces, these 16 states are Kerala, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Hi­­­machal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Ut­tar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Ben­gal, Assam, Meghalaya, Mani­pur, Mi­zo­r­am, Tripura, Nagaland and Aru­na­chal Pra­­desh. In addition, the cabi­net has app­roved extending BharatNet to cover all inhabited villages in the remaining states and UTs, where modalities will be separa­tely worked out by DoT.

Prior to this, in February 2021, the go­vernment gave its approval for the implementation of the BharatNet Phase II project in Uttarakhand. Following this, 12,000 villages of Uttarakhand will get in­ternet connectivity under the BharatNet Phase II project.

4G remained high on the agenda

4G remained a key focus area during the year. While private players focused on augmenting their 4G capacity, the government launched schemes and took measures to extend 4G coverage to some of the key underserved areas.

In December 2021, Bharti Airtel won a tender for the installation of 4G towers in Arunachal Pradesh. The tender is a part of the state government’s move to ensure con­nectivity in the remote districts of the state. The Arunachal Pradesh government also aims to allot sufficient 4G to­wers to remote districts from the 980 sanctioned by the central government.

BSNL too wrote to the heads of its telecom circles to identify sites and related materials for the installation of 4G nodes. BSNL has set a September 2022 timeline for the pan-India roll-out of 4G services, with an estimated incremental revenue of Rs 9 billion in the first year of roll-out, and no proposal under consideration currently for the disinvestment of BSNL and Maha­nagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL). Earlier, in January 2021, BSNL had invited expressions of interest for proof of concept from Indian companies interested in participating in its upcoming 4G tender.

Other operators too pushed the pedal on 4G expansion. For instance, in Nov­ember 2021, Reliance Jio became the first operator to bring mobile connectivity to De­mchok (eastern Ladakh) with the la­unch of its 4G voice and data services in the border village. Besides Demchok, 4G services were launched in the border villages of Ch­u­shul, Nyoma Tharuk and Dur­buk in La­da­kh. Jio also installed 1,529 telecom towers across key tribal villages in Andhra Pra­desh to provide 4G coverage to these areas. These include the Araku valley, Borra Ca­ves and the Lambasingi and Kotha­palli waterfalls. Further, high speed 4G network was being provided in the remote areas of Paderu, Chintapalli, Ma­redumilli, Ra­m­pa­chodava­ram, Addatee­gala, G. Ma­du­gula, Pedaba­ya­lu, G.K Vee­dhi, and Du­mbriguda. The operator rece­ntly acquired an additional 6.25 MHz of the 850 MHz band in Andhra Pradesh. It also acquired 4.2 MHz of the 1800 MHz band and 10 MHz of the 2300 MHz spectrum band in An­dhra Pradesh. So far, Jio has dep­loyed this spectrum throughout the 10,462 sites spread across the state. Mean­while, Vodafone Idea Limited completed the process of refarming of 3G spectrum to 4G on the majority of its sites ac­ross various circles pan-India, an exercise that will substantially enhance the GIGAnet 4G capacity in these cities.

The government, too, took some key measures. For instance, in November 2021, the Union Cabinet approved the USO Fund scheme for provisioning of mo­­bile services in uncovered villages ac­ross five states – Andhra Pradesh, Ch­hattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Odisha. Under this project, 4G-based mo­bile services will be provided in 7,287 uncovered villages across 44 districts in these five states. The estimated cost of im­plementation is around Rs 64.66 billion including operational expenses for five years and the project is expected to be completed within 18 months.

The work related to the provisioning of 4G mobile services in identified uncovered villages will be awarded through an open competitive bidding process as per extant USO Fund procedures. The project is aim­ed at enhancing digital connectivity, di­s­semination of information and knowledge, skill upgradation and development, disaster management, and e-governance initiatives. Also, it seeks to facilitate learning, establish enterprise and e-commerce facilities, and provide adequate support to educational institutes for knowledge sharing.

Outlook for 2022

Going forward, these trends are expected to shape up over the coming years. Given the NDCP objective of creating 10 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2022, as against 0.35 million at present, the PM-WANI po­licy will result in the creation of enormous demand and scope for developing the components of this crucial pan-Indian activity. Satcom is also expected to hold a significant share in the broadband space given its potential to connect the remote and rural hinterlands of the country.

Diksha Sharma