Over the past few years, India has experienced a massive surge in indoor voice and data consumption. The ongoing Covid-19 induced lockdown has further added to this. In line with these changing market needs, telcos and towercos have been scaling up the deployment of in-building solutions (IBS). Moreover, industry stakeholders are putting greater emphasis on sharing in-building infrastructure to save opex and capex, as well as to avoid the duplication of infrastructure deployment. At a recent tele.net conference, industry stakeholders involved in the indoor connectivity space shared their views on the key trends dominating the digital indoor system market, the challenges in deploying these solutions, and some suggestions to address these. The following are the key takeaways from the discussion…
Low fixed line penetration
While mobile networks have picked up well, fixed line networks, which are essential to provide high bandwidth, low latencies at times, have failed to do so. At present, only 5-7 per cent of users use fixed broadband. Fiberisation too is quite low. Currently, 0.5 per cent of our customers are on fibre, compared to Singapore with 90 per cent-plus and Hong Kong at 70 per cent-plus.
Low indoor coverage
The real pain comes from the inside-building scenario. About 80 per cent of voice traffic takes place from indoors. And that is what requires huge coverage. As per a recent Nokia study, almost 65 per cent of people were really bothered about indoor coverage. While telecom operators are trying to put up their sites, they have their own limitations and problems. In addition, people also have an issue with large towers coming up right before their buildings. This is where the new solutions and the new way of working need to come into play.
Emergence of a digital ecosystem
Till some time back, artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT) were only words for technology geeks. But that is no more. According to recent studies by IDC and Statista, which covered around 2,300 top executives across 15 countries, IoT is the biggest opportunity in both the B2B as well as B2B2C segments. Around 60 per cent of these executives said that IoT is part of the main strategy for their business.
Meanwhile, India today has the highest per broadband user consumption in the world. Although the percentage of customers in the country is not as large as in advanced countries such as the US and China, the per customer consumption is 11 GB, which is extremely high. And this has increased tenfold in the past five years. From 1 GB in 2015, data consumption has increased to 11 GB currently. In addition to video, other factors, such as the digital transformation taking place in the government and private sectors, are a huge contributor to this.
In terms of telecom network, we are almost at par as far as the 4G network is concerned. Going forward, in the 5G era, whenever it comes, a key requirement would be optic fibre. So, whether it is 4G or 5G, ensuring an every time, everywhere network would require a very robust fibre infrastructure.
The government should not tax infrastructure players while they are creating infrastructure. Things like right-of-way (RoW) costs are a key roadblock to infrastructure development. Most of the authorities put huge capex loads on infrastructure providers because they think they will derive revenue out of it and because of this, the infrastructure is not up to the mark, which is required to provide good quality services. The government should allow infrastructure providers to build infrastructure at a very low cost. Industry stakeholders feel that instead of taxing the infrastructure work, the government should tax the services that will be provided by the service provider.
Lack of government support
While new buildings are giving due importance to telecom infrastructure by laying proper cabling and putting antennas, this only comprises 5 per cent of the population. The remaining 95 per cent has legacy networks, where fibre connectivity is very weak. Moreover, the new buildings that are coming up are not only few in number but are also very scattered. So to even provide that connectivity the service provider has to pass through the last mile and all of the middle mile of the city, which is very cost intensive. Further, if service providers receive government support to have low-cost infrastructure in the urban market, they can go into the rural market and provide broadband as well as other services that would give ubiquitous coverage across the nation.
New-age solutions for new-age needs
Effective redressal of the problem of low indoor coverage needs a number of new solutions. These could be through small cells and smaller sites. However, low-power sites, low-power antennas and low-power solutions need to come right into the buildings, into residential complexes, into office complexes and into commercial companies. This can happen only if there is optic fibre reach at all these places, which can be leveraged to deliver services through low-power radio resources through different sources.
Small cells and their advantages
Small cells are picking up in a big way in the country. Small cells play an important role in covering large complexes, whether they are offices or residences or colonies. There is a need to make buildings fibre ready. Ultimately, the objective is to carry fibre to the farthest point nearest to the customer from where it can be served. Once this is achieved, it will also accelerate the process of digitalisation. With these types of fibre, small cells and low-power technologies that can be brought in, the door would be opened to a whole new range of activities. These include surveillance, access control and parking problems. In addition, building management and IoT will get a major boost and connected homes will emerge in a big way.
Importance of neutral network players
Tower sharing, which started about 10 years back, played a very important role in the real growth of 4G. There is a need to take this practice to the next level. In that sense, neutral network infrastructure is something that is extremely critical and offers a win-win situation to all stakeholders. Neutral players will play a very important role because their motto is to create a facility rather than to have any strategic interest or bias. When a neutral player offers service, the underlying philosophy is to provide a uniform network and over that the TSPs build their network, depending on their commercial business case. A neutral host provider or an IP-1 plays a very important role because since it is the one incurring the entire capex, it knows what is the right kind of capex that goes into providing world-class services. Also, it is the one that is going to tie up with all the service providers and ensure that they are given a fair chance and fair opportunity to provide services to all occupants in a building. It is also the one that will gel the building infrastructure together, not just mobility coverage solutions but other solutions such as the sensors, IoT and AI solutions, and the building management systems.
Design considerations for networks
Distributed antenna solutions have been there for almost a decade and a half, ever since the need for digital solutions was felt. But there has been a constant change in technology that has been evolving not just in digital access systems but also in outdoor systems. Data consumption has been growing rapidly, at the rate of 80-90 per cent year on year. Today, data consumption has gone up to 10 GB to 12 GB per subscriber per month. This calls for better capacity, coverage and throughput in the networks that are to be deployed. So, there are a lot of considerations that need to be kept in mind when designing networks. Besides, these networks cannot be made to fit the solution once everything has been done.
Impact of Covid-19 on digital transformation
The Covid-19 pandemic has set a new course for our day-to-day lives with several long-term ramifications. Within the entertainment sector, video traffic has increased by leaps and bounds for YouTube and Netflix. Videoconferencing has also seen an uptick across sectors and companies.
Work-from-home and work-from-remote locations have become a symbol of the Covid times. These, in fact, represent a new way of life wherein technology plays a key role and throws up significant challenges in providing robust networks that ensure digital connectivity and digital communications, which, in broad terms, is referred to as digital indoor systems. Digital indoor systems have an ecosystem of their own and involve a partnership among several players.
As the majority of the population is inside bound, indoor Wi-Fi and 4G signal have to be of very good quality. So, from a bandwidth perspective, the indoor requirement today is definitely much higher than in the pre-Covid days. However, mobility has its own restrictions. One cannot have the kind of 4G or 5G coverage inside a building as one has outdoors. This is because of the way it is being planned; otherwise the cost of the solution is very high. Hence, there is a need for in-building solutions and that requires much more fiberisation.
The way forward
Integration of key solutions in existing buildings
As per estimates by global real estate services firm JLL, 12-15 per cent of the workforce will move to a work-from-home kind of model in the post-Covid scenario. This means that internet connectivity is very important in order to enable work-from-home in the near future. But, unfortunately, managing residential buildings is very tough because of cabling issues. Today, every user in a residential apartment is asking for some common infrastructure. There is a need for collaborative working, particularly in the context of digital infrastructure. In such a scenario, technology is going to become a very important element. Things like fibre-to-the-home and indoor optical network terminals need to be looked at. How these can be integrated with the existing buildings is a key point to take into account. Retrofitting these buildings is going to be a major challenge. However, this challenge presents a huge opportunity as well for the relevant stakeholders.
Providing a regulatory impetus
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has been recommending to the Department of Telecommunications that active sharing by IP-1s should be allowed. Unfortunately, that has not happened. Industry stakeholders believe that a major push is needed in this area. Further, earlier, in 2014, TRAI had recommended that the licence fee on fixed lines be made zero for at least five years. At present, the licence fee is around 8 per cent of the total adjusted gross revenue (AGR). Making the licence fee zero would encourage people to lay fixed lines. If that happens, all those companies that were doing business in addition to some kind of telecom infrastructure would be relieved of the AGR disputes. Then, the local cable operators, the MSOs that have connectivity to almost 100 million households in the country, would be in a position to provide broadband connectivity to houses. All 100 million are not connected today, but the infrastructure is there. In addition, on January 20, 2017, TRAI had issued a recommendation to the government stating that IP-1s should be mandated to share in-building infrastructure, whether it is IBS, OFC or cable ducts. And if who is provided by the telecom operator, it has to share it; otherwise it will become a bottleneck facility. TRAI has also recommended that the government ask licensees, TSPs, to not get into any exclusive agreements with the RWAs so that everyone shares the infrastructure. Nobody should be able to block the entry of a competitor. In order to effectively deal with the current crisis in digital infrastructure, it is imperative that these recommendations are acted upon in a timely manner.
The process of policy making begins when there is a declaration regarding the need for a new policy. There are two guidelines that the ministry works with. One is the Urban and Regional Development Plan guidelines, which tell us how to plan a city and the infrastructure that is required at the city level to get to different areas of the city. The second is the building by-laws, which state, once everything is at the plot level, how building regulations can be formulated. So, if there is no standardisation between the requirements of different service providers and there are no uniform recommendations from the stakeholders to the ministry, it becomes difficult to formulate guidelines that address and allow equality between all the players. The ministry has said that it is ready to amend either of the two guidelines, but a concise statement from the industry is needed first.