India is in the midst of an unprecedented technology change, which is impacting everything that we do. Technologies such as IoT, AI and M2M have brought game-changing benefits across industries. With the evolution of such modern technologies, there is an enormous need to have high speed and reliable data traffic capacities. If we see the year-on-year growth, the overall data traffic showed an increase of 109 per cent in 2018 due to an exponential rise in 4G consumption, and the average data usage per month per subscriber reached 10 GB, registering a growth rate of 69 per cent. The telecom industry is now gearing up for 5G, and optical fibre needs to be available in abundance to fulfil the technology’s potential. The country’s existing fibre infrastructure is limited and has high average fibre attenuations, which lead to higher total cost of ownership for communication service providers.
The government issued the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) in 2018 to strengthen India’s long-term competitiveness in the digital space. The policy aims to connect, propel and secure the country with broadband connectivity at 50 Mbps for all through initiatives like BharatNet, GramNet, NagarNet, JanWi-Fi and Fibre First. The effort is to take fibre to homes, enterprise, and key development institutions across the country. NDCP encompasses the establishment of a National Digital Grid by creating a National Fibre Authority. As of June 2019, the government has connected 130,000 gram panchayats (GPs) of the total 250,000 GPs with optical fibre under BharatNet. However, this network has already started facing challenges in terms of reliability and availability. The underground fibre network typically has a shorter lifespan and undergoes frequent cuts due to continuous road expansions, and maintenance activities. To ensure that Wi-Fi connectivity reaches every village, the Digital Communications Commission (DCC), in June 2019, approved a proposal for implementing BharatNet in public-private partnership (PPP) mode. The aim is to replicate the success of PPPs in the Indian road sector. Over 560 road projects, comprising a total length of 45,000 km with an estimated investment exceeding Rs 2 trillion, have been awarded on a PPP basis. The same spirit, if adopted for BharatNet, can ensure a faster scale-up.
Leveraging power utility assets
One of the convergence-led approaches to having a high quality, reliable and robust fibre network is to leverage the existing network assets of utilities like power, gas and water. India has more than 10 million ckt km of transmission and distribution lines, as compared with just 1.8 million route km of fibre deployed. Power transmission lines having optical ground wire (OPGW), which serves the dual role of earthing and grid communications) provide uptimes of more than 99.9 per cent. Further, secured substations, continuous power supply, OPGW fibre networks running on top of extra high voltage lines, coupled with the existing right-of-way (RoW) rules, facilitate uninterrupted, sabotage-free, reliable and secure network availability. The power utility network can also be used as an alternative fail-safe ring network for BharatNet connectivity. Further, the power utility distribution network can serve as the last-mile alternative network up to the household level. Also, new technologies like broadband over power lines (BPL) can be deployed for connecting very remote locations where fibre deployment is a challenge.
Globally, there are many successful examples of utilities, telcos and governments coming together to accelerate fibre development at the national level. EPB, an American electric power distribution and telecom company owned by the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, has built a smart grid on the back of fibre optic lines to offer cable TV, telephone and internet services. It covers the entire city of Chattanooga, serving around 155,000 homes and 25,000 enterprise customers. Many other US cities are now working to replicate this model. In another instance, CEMIG Telecom, a wholly owned subsidiary of the largest integrated power utility in Brazil, provides communication services in six major states. With more than 15,000 km of high quality optical fibre network and availability of 99.95 per cent uptime, it provides telecom bandwidth services to corporates, ISPs and telcos.
In India, Sterlite Power’s convergence business has created a joint venture (JV) with Maharashtra State Energy Transmission Company Limited, called Maharashtra Transmission Communication Infrastructure Limited. The JV has installed around 3,000 km of OPGW. The ring architecture of the network can be easily deployed to provide an alternative path to critical BharatNet links in Maharashtra. Further, in a bid to support smart cities, Sterlite Power has collaborated with the Gurugram Municipal Development Authority to build a reliable intra-city fibre network through an innovative PPP model.
The way forward
Power utilities can play a major role in solving telecom infrastructure-related challenges, thereby helping India meet its Connect India mission.
N.K. Panda, Head, Convergence Business, Sterlite Power