Raj Sethia, CEO, FireFly Networks Limited

The launch of 5G at the India Mobile Congress 2022 is that one, high-decibel, stand-out development that represents a big turning point for the digital services industry in India and will define the rest of this decade. The unabated gro­wth in the adoption of 4G, and now 5G; the burgeoning usage of digital payments and e-commerce; the momentum behind the Make in India programme; further con­solidation of the market share in the servi­ce provider space; and average revenue per user hardening – these were some of the big trends that we saw over the previous 12 months. It was also encouraging to see steady, 360-degree progress this year on the multifaceted telecom reforms programme kicked off in 2021 across areas such as ease of doing business, investment attractiveness and customer convenience, as well as the enabling legislative changes governing the larger digital ecosystem.

Let me concentrate on five trends that will change the landscape of digital infrastructure services in 2023 and beyond, directly or indirectly.

  1. The next wave of investments in di­gital infrastructure will be characte­rised by dense outdoor coverage and low-latency indoor coverage.

The significance of latency key performa­nce indicators will rise significantly, re­gar­d­less of the technology employed or the type of infrastructure, once the coverage targets for 5G roll-out are met.

Ultra-low/Low-powered indoor small cells (ULPSCs/LPSCs) will begin to see traction alongside the already increasing deployments of high-powered outdoor small cells. Traditional passive and hybrid IBS-DAS models will continue to become more niche and cede some space to ULPSCs/LPSCs, while also competing selectively with multioperator radio access network (RAN) deployments.

  1. Business models for delivering di­gi­tal infrastructure services will be recrafted, as lines between passive and oth­er value-added services continue to blur.

Disruption in this arena is due, and pe­rhaps the only way to address the ominous challenge of indoor coverage and capacity in the post-4G era.

The traditionally successful infra services model, which was based on the trio of passive infrastructure hosting, tenancy ra­tio, and site and energy management ser­­­vices, will be redesigned to stay relevant. Infrastructure providers will be inc­reasingly willing to bet on novel models and overlay newer planning, deployment, operations and management support services over an access infrastructure network that is tech- and operator-neutral.

  1. The unit economics of digital infrastructure services will continue to improve on account of positive policy and regulatory environment.

The legislative framework that will begin to appear in 2023 will:

  • Reduce the ability of right-of-way (RoW) authorities and venue owners to “rent-seek”;
  • Make the building of neutral indoor digital infrastructure a prerequisite for any real estate project;
  • Further encourage sharing of infrastructure, including active sharing.

The government and the Department of Telecommunications have already taken significant steps, such as setting up the Gati Shakti Sanchar portal and amending the Indian Telegraph RoW Rules, 2016. We will see more reforms and legislations aimed at reducing RoW costs as well as enabling sharing.

  1. Significant 5G monetisation will still be in the works, but 5G use ca­ses will start to take hold.

Turning use cases into business cases will continue to be the holy grail, and will likely be a game changer only in the longer run. However, we will see a plethora of ex­citing proofs of concept and trials across all major industry segments that take the industry forward in its journey to realise the full 5G potential.

Fixed wireless access will begin to gain some traction. Applications such as ex­tre­me gaming, augmented reality/virtual reality, etc., will drive Wi-Fi network-as-a-service as much as, if not more than, 5G and private long term evolution growth in the near term.

  1. Open-source solutions will become mainstream.

Open source solutions, whether it is software, open RAN or open Wi-Fi, will be si­gnificantly mainstreamed this year and will find greater acceptability as key drivers of innovation and cost competitiveness. The advancement of open Wi-Fi, th­an­ks to the excellent work of the Telecom Infra Project, was a revelation for many in 2022, including me, and the momentum will likely continue.

India aims to leapfrog and lead the wor­ld in all things digital. These justifiable aspirations are aptly backed by the country’s success in the recent past, and of course, the undisputed potential that lies ahead.

2023 seems all set to be a watershed year in India’s journey! s

(Raj Sethia founded and currently leads FireFly Networks Limited, a joint venture between Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea. The opinions presented here are entirely his own.)