With a sudden upsurge in mobile su­b­­s­cribers, there is a need for providing efficient network connections to every mobile user in India. To this end, telecom towers need to ensure effective wireless communication and a strong network with optimised bandwidth. In order to reduce call drop rates, different types of telecom towers are being installed in various geographic locations. Further, as a large number of telecom towers are re­­quired to be erected both in rural and ur­ban areas, a lot of emphasis is being laid on economical design.

Types of towers

One of the most commonly spotted towers is the lattice tower. It usually appears in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. Lattice towers are freestanding and segmentally de­signed with rectangular or triangular base steel lattices. This type of tower construction can be useful in situations that require modifications such as mounting large nu­mbers of panel or dish antennas. They can be used as electricity transmission tow­ers, radio towers or observation towers.

Another type of towers is gu­yed towers, which can be lightweight or heavyweight, and are often seen as slender steel structures. Commonly seen in the to­wer industry, guyed towers are designed to provide maximum strength, efficiency and versatility, with easy installation. They are supported by one or more levels of br­ai­ded or stranded steel guy cables that an­chor to the ground.

Monopole towers are yet another type of tower structures, which work well when the space is limited, zoning is difficult, or harsh weather conditions need to be considered. These are the least intrusive towers in the wireless communications industry, consisting of either a tubular section design or a tapered pole. Meanwhile, steal­th camouflage towers are popular mo­no­pole designs. Due to their smaller size, they are typically less efficient. Stealth to­wers can be spotted as a metal tree stan­ding tall on the side of a highway. The pu­r­pose of this structure is to hide a tower from plain sight whenever it is necessary. These towers can take the shape of many other objects such as signs, flagpoles and even cacti.

Next in the list are self-support towers that offer the most possibilities compared to other types of telecom towers and are considered appropriate for nearly all wireless communication applications. Ava­il­­able in three-legged triangular and four-legged square lattice-type structures, their braces can accommodate the heaviest of lo­ads and the strongest of winds. Their desi­gn is ideal for installations where space re­qu­irements may be limited and often inexpensive to purchase, transport and install.

Development trends

Over the past seven years, the Indian telecom tower industry has grown significantly by 65 per cent, with the number of mo­bile towers increasing from 400,000 in 2014 to 660,000 in 2021. Similarly, the number of mobile base transceiver stations has grown rapidly by 187 per cent and inc­reased from 800,000 in 2014 to 2.3 million in 2021.

Of late, the telecom tower industry has been seeing significant development in the structure, design, operations and management of towers. For instance, the telecom infrastructure industry is rapidly moving towards innovative solutions, in an effort to drive operational efficiency. These include internet of things (IoT) for asset management, drone-based tower inspection and mobile applications for operations and maintenance and workforce management. Further, towercos have started setting up tower operation centres, which offer real-time monitoring of sites, digitalisation of field operations, predictive analytics of operations and real-time GPS-based mapping for disaster management.

Smart poles are emerging as the next big thing in futuristic street furniture, ma­king them a key component in the development of smart cities globally. They provide a compact, multifunctional public li­gh­ting infrastructure, which can also host te­lecom equipment for connectivity, CCTV cameras for surveillance, environ­me­ntal sensors, modems for Wi-Fi, public ad­dress systems, panic/emergency buttons, digital billboards, electric vehicle (EV) chargers and several other smart features. Smart poles work by using small-cell base stations that are housed within the pole. The arrangement is extremely cost-effective as the sensors can draw power from the light pole and utilise the communications infrastructure embedded in it, thus saving the implementation cost, as no dedicated site is required for providing sensors.

Another major trend with regard to tower structures is rooftop towers. Such towers are installed above the roof of a high-rise building. The height of the tower can vary from 9 metres to 30 metres. The service provider evaluates the tower erection and the height to decide on the number of antennas that can be fixed with the tower. Besides, the concept of a guyed tower has gained significance in recent times. It is a light- to heavy-weight communication tower constructed with strai­ght rods aligned in a triangular form, but supported with wires at all angles. Guyed towers are especially tall, reaching a height of 2,000 feet and are typically used to hold antennas high off the ground, allowing for greater signal strength and cell reception. In addition to cellular use, they can be used for radio and television purposes. They are ideal for rural customers who require the maximum height at an economical cost.

Emerging opportunities

Traditionally, tower companies have been “grass and steel” players of the telecom in­dustry. They have found the right land at the right price, managed permits and construction, and collected rent from carriers. It is a model that worked well when carriers’ emphasis was on footprint expansion. But times and market dynamics are changing. New 5G roll-outs, more diverse network technologies and the emergence of new business models, among other trends, mean that tower companies need to be mo­re agile, more data-driven and more fo­cused on pursuing new revenue streams. As companies across industries have disco­vered, the best catalyst for all these things is digital transformation. As network ar­chitectures have evolved, equipment up­grades have become increasingly frequent. And the pace of these upgrades is likely to accelerate as carriers roll out 5G. In order to stay on top of these changes, tower co­m­panies need reliable real-time visibility into what is installed on their structures and what capacity for installing additional equipment remains to be done.

In a major initiative, the Department of Telecommunications has recently laun­ched its centralised right-of-way portal, Gati­Sha­kti Sanchar. The portal will centralise and speed up approvals for laying of fibre and tower installations. For players, it pro­mises to reduce the number of days invol­ved in getting stipulated permissions, lower costs and facilitate ease of doing business.

Among operators, Reliance Jio install­ed a camouflaged 4G mobile tower in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. Meanwhile, Eric­s­son has developed a “tower tube” that all­o­ws operators or tower companies to install it in textures that match the surrounding landscape. Tower tubes consume 40 per cent less energy, emit 30 per cent less carbon dioxide and occupy 60-75 per cent less space as compared to conventional towers.

In recent times, transmission towers are being offered as telecom antenna sites to telcos, where power is supplied to the telecom antenna through innovative step-down voltage transformer. This mechanism guarantees 24×7 power supply. The adoption of this unique solution will en­able an environment-friendly green ener­gy solution and eliminate the need for a separate telecom tower capex.

Sector outlook

The growth of macro sites is expected to be modest in the coming years, largely driven by capacity expansion of 4G data services in the immediate term and later by the 5G launch. Going further, the en­han­ce­ment of the scope of IP-1s to include active infrastructure will prepare towercos to embrace emerging opportunities in small cells, Wi-Fi, in-building solutions, IoT, fibre to-the-home, etc.

Moreover, with the industry leaning towards data-heavy consumption and 5G services on the anvil, towercos are aligning their business priorities with the changing sector needs. Further, as the eco­nomy grows, low-hanging revenue opportunities can come from capitalising real estate rights of infrastructure pro­vi­ders – opening up growth avenues in advertisements, EV infrastructure, security solutions and traffic control, among others. By focusing on the right mix of competencies and business opportunities, the tower industry can drive a sustainable trajectory of growth.