India has been rolling out 5G at an unprecedented pace, with the aim of achieving 80 per cent LTE coverage by 2024. So far, over 280,000 5G base transceiver stations (BTSs) have been installed at a roll-out rate of approximately 1,700 BTSs per day. Around 35 per cent of 4G sites have been upgraded to 5G. Notably, telcos have surpassed the three-year 5G network roll-out target within six months of commercial launch. Approximately, 26 petabytes or 18-20 per cent of the total traffic is being carried on 5G networks. 5G services are now available in over 6,000 towns, cities, and talukas across the country. In May 2023, 5G subscriptions surpassed 50 million, which is 5 per cent of the global penetration. In this context, a robust optical fibre cable (OFC) infrastructure will play a key role in supporting 5G network expansion and delivering the promised speeds and use cases.
5G use cases and monetisation
While telcos continue to focus on the roll-out of 5G throughout 2023, business-to-business (B2B) use cases will take priority in the coming years. Fixed wireless access (FWA) is one of the clearest early use cases for 5G, with global connections projected to exceed 250 million in 2028, up from less than 100 million in 2022. Of this, 5G FWA will constitute 190-220 million connections, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 31 per cent. The Asia-Pacific and Japan regions will witness the highest growth, with approximately one-third of the global share, followed by Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In India, only 7 per cent of households are connected to fixed broadband services, presenting significant potential and opportunity for communication service providers (CSPs).
Network slicing and private wireless
In the longer term, the focus of CSPs is expected to shift towards monetising 5G for enterprises, encompassing mainly two applications – network slicing and private wireless. Network-slicing provides standardised solutions that utilise the existing infrastructure of CSPs, whereas private wireless typically targets larger enterprises with specific data requirements, high security demands and closed campuses. Network slicing is generally simpler, more standardised and distributed, involving lower costs and higher volumes. Meanwhile, private wireless is usually project-based, tailored and geographically limited with higher costs, longer lead times and greater complexity. While network slicing may initially have a slower uptake, it is expected to gain momentum after 2025 and eventually overtake private wireless revenue from 2028 onwards.
Role of OFC in 5G
In the traditional radio access network (RAN) architecture, all components are mounted on the tower. However, the transition towards 5G and future network generations necessitates a split RAN architecture with the introduction of fibre on the tower. To enable future B2B use cases of 5G, further advancement towards a centralised/cloud RAN architecture will be key. This entails hosting the baseband unit (BBU) at a centralised point and requires fibre infrastructure running from this centralised BBU to the cell sites. This will be followed by the virtualisation of RAN, which will require even more fiberisation.
Network transformation by CSPs
In the short-to-medium term, CSPs will undertake various activities on the network infrastructure front to realise the true potential of 5G. Capacity expansion in both the backhaul and the core will be a key requirement for the transition from 4G to 5G. While LTE is designed for backhaul capacity between 150 Mbps and 1 Gbps, monetisation of 5G will require approximately 5 Gbps of backhaul. To this end, fronthaul requirements need to be addressed with scalable and high capacity packet optical solutions. Robust solutions are essential to unlock new 5G use cases, as compared to the GPS-based currently being utilised.
Further, there will be a focus on automation in fiberisation to create a fully software-defined and programmable network fabric in the coming years. A prominent use case of automation using artificial intelligence will predict fibre cuts and damages. Network automation is the key to reducing the total cost of ownership for profitable on-demand network services. Network densification through fiberisation will be required to connect multiple sites, including in-building solutions, and achieve peak speeds of over 1 Gbps. Other trends in this space will include the convergence of fixed and mobile broadband, the replacement of GPS-based synchronisation with robust network synchronisation, and the emergence of edge data centres.
Based on a presentation by Chandan Kumar, Head of Optical Networks RBC – India, Nokia