As of 2021, around 1.5 million km of optical fibre cable (OFC) has been deployed by operators in India. This covers about 30 per cent of the existing telecom network. Among the telcos, Reliance Jio claims to have fiberised 70 per cent of its sites. However, this is only vis-à-vis the existing network and does not include 5G network considerations. Fibre requirements for 5G will be over and above this. Airtel, too, has been deploying 30,000 to 40,000 km of fibre every year and is taking adequate measures as far as preparation for 5G is concerned. At a recent virtual conference on “OFC Network in India”, organised by tele.net, Satish Jamadagni, vice-president, network planning engineering, Reliance Jio, and Deepak Sanghi, senior vice-president, Bharti Airtel, shared their views on the industry’s 5G readiness, its key requirements, the state of the fibre infrastructure, the key challenges and the way forward…
Key infrastructure requirements of 5G
As far as the fibre requirement for 5G is concerned, it is expected to be in an order of 10x at the least, per site. Of course, it would depend largely on the nature of the 5G deployment. For instance, under an aggregated cloudified distributed unit scenario, wherein the radio unit is on the tower top and the operator is trying to aggregate all of the base bandwidth from the site, the fibre requirement will exponentially shoot up between the radio head and aggregated sites. In this scenario, the operator might be looking at about 60-120 Gbps, just on that single link. This will add significantly to the fibre requirements.
Alternative technologies, particularly wireless backhaul, will be key in the provision of 5G services. Here, wireless backhaul does not mean conventional wireless backhaul; rather, it is focused on new technologies such as the 60-70 GHz backhaul, or the E- and V-band backhaul. That is where operators can add up capacity.
The emergence of Wi-Fi 6 technology is another key development, especially for indoor coverage and capacity. While interference has been a key limiting factor for Wi-Fi usage so far, Wi-Fi 6 is riding on the promise of better and more advanced interference mitigation. As far as outdoor is concerned, 5G will of course be the predominant technology.
Industry leaders have highlighted that there exists a difference of scale between 4G and 5G. As such, features such as latency, backhaul performance, speed and capacity will be at least ten times better under 5G than 4G. Similarly, on the performance side, 5G would call for a much more stringent synchronisation and much more stringent performance requirements for backhauling. Meanwhile, in terms of infrastructure, the power requirement may increase at sites. Further, greater enhancements may be required on the infrastructure end, essentially leading to added tower space and fibre requirements.
5G readiness is expected to come in stages, as the technology itself is still evolving. There are a lot of parallel technologies that will have to fall in place. For instance, the open RAN ecosystem still has to mature. While it is developing rapidly, it has not yet matured to the level where the right cost points can be achieved.
There are certain other key issues that will have to be considered, such as the weight and energy consumption of base stations. As per industry estimates, transition from 4G to 5G will cause an increase in the weight of radio panel heads from 5 kg to 50-60 kg per tower. Industry experts have highlighted that it is physically not feasible to mount the existing towers with so many radio panel heads that are heavy. New options will have to be explored. New technologies will also have to be explored to address other issues such as heating. This can be done by moving from aluminium to nano materials.
In India, 5G deployment will happen in multiple phases. The first phase will cover the immediate deployments. This will be followed by the second phase, which will entail optimisation of capacity. The third phase will be concerned with services, and service optimisation will take place.
Apart from this, transport for 5G is also something that the industry is looking into. To this end, as far as radio is concerned, a couple of trials have already been undertaken by Airtel and various other operators.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in the deployment of 5G is to ensure that as the requirements for 5G increase by ten times, the earnings also increase by the same margin. At the same time, it is imperative to ensure that costs do not grow by a great margin. It should remain more or less the same in absolute terms, while in relative terms, the cost should, in fact, go down.
Globally, telcos are using cables with 144 and 288 count fibres instead of 48 or 96 count ones, but that is not the case yet in our country. India has a very high number of fibre cuts. In India, if an operator invests in a 288 count fibre cable and if it gets damaged in a couple of years, then the operator cannot really draw any reasonable return from the cable. Further, there is no certainty that the operator will be able to leverage the full capacity of that OFC cable 10 years later. Instances of fibre damage are quite common here due to the lack of stringent regulations.
Another key challenge is the absence of India-based standards in OFC manufacturing. Industry leaders have vocalised their concerns about the practice of blindly following international practices for OFC cables. They have pointed out that Indian OFC players are not really seeing, evaluating and working towards addressing the challenges that are unique to India. The need of the hour is to bring about a change in the cable supply chain and the way that cables are being built in this ecosystem. This should include regulations such that fibre cuts can be reduced and sustainability can be improved.
Learnings from around the world
As per industry estimates, there are over 50 countries where 5G deployments have already taken place. Further, in another 150 countries, deployments will take place within a year.
Given that 5G deployments have already taken place in various countries, a lot of learning is coming in from these regions. For example, the US went for a millimetre-wave deployment initially, which has not been very successful. Now there is a push towards non-millimetre deployments for better coverage. Industry leaders are of the view that this is good for India, because it can tap the various learnings that are coming from the rest of the world so India does not have to go through the same learning phase.
The way forward
Fibre is fundamental to any telecom business, be it mobile broadband, fixed line broadband or enterprise connectivity. However, while it is good to have fibre everywhere, across sites, small cells, clusters, buildings and homes, it is not commercially feasible. Thus, a balance has to be achieved between fibre requirement and affordability. There has to be a balance between what is really needed and when it is needed. Taking this into consideration, there is a general consensus in the industry that going forward, we are not going to see a 100 per cent fiberised world, even if the need is there.
In terms of 5G requirement, over and above fibre deployment, there will also be a need for high speed radio backhaul technologies. Further, the industry will have to seriously look at wireless backhaul, including broadband wireless technologies. The right technology is available today, such as E-band and V-bands, though they are still under policy discussions.
The regulatory environment also has to undergo some changes to provide a conductive ecosystem for the proliferation of these new technologies. At present, under the current regulatory system, the 60 GHz band in India is sold in chunks of 50 MHz. Operators can thus collect whatever number of 50 MHz chunks they can buy, and then deploy it as backhaul.
Industry experts have opined that the new backhaul technologies will require 2.4 GHz of bandwidth. The government is believed to be already looking into this, and if that segment opens up, it would perhaps be the best thing to happen.