Private players, including telecom operators, infrastructure providers and network solution providers, have played an important role in the creation of digital infrastructure. These industry stakeholders are now looking to increase fiberisation to enhance India’s digital footprint. At the recently organised “Digital Infrastructure for Transforming India” conference, industry experts discussed the role of the private sector in shaping the digital ecosystem and the outlook going forward. Excerpts…
The movement towards a digitally empowered society is driving us to develop smart city architecture, which requires fibre and broadband connectivity. The network architecture has to change and transform itself to support services such as infrastructure-as–a-service, platform-as-a–service, software-as-a-service and network-as-a-service. The first level of transformation involves a change from 4G to 5G. The second level involves transformation from physical to virtual infrastructure wherein hardware networking elements have to move to software-defined networking elements. The third is from an internet protocol (IP) network with simple IP multiprotocol label switching quality of service and quality of experience to an optical transport network, which is packet aware and a service aware. We have to transition from the gigabit era to the terabit era as we become IP-enabled. The fourth transformation should be in terms of services from SMS, telephony, etc. to mobile apps. The fifth transformation involves the move from a physical highway towards a digital information highway, supporting real-time web interactive applications, mobile TV, mobile video conferencing, and augmented reality and virtual reality. As the telecommunications, media and internet segments are going to converge on an application level, phones, laptops, desktops and televisions will converge on the device level. This will be the sixth transformation.
Further, we need to converge licensed and unlicensed spectrum usage for Wi-Fi as we usher in the next era. Working on these transformations will help create a truly digital network economy. However, all the seven key stakeholders, telcos, original equipment manufacturers, the regulator, the consumers, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), device manufacturers and application players, have to come together and work in synchrony to take us towards the transformation path for creating digital infrastructure that supports next-generation services in a digitally networked economy.
“The network architecture has to change and transform itself to support services such as infrastructure-as–a-service, platform-as-a–service, software- as-a-service and network- as-a-service.”C.S. Rao
In this information age, communication technology is not only trying to address connectivity issues, but also influence cultures across the globe. Telecom networks are now moving towards digital networks. Both the government and large telcos are leading this transformation.
During 2000-10, the major motive was connecting people. So, voice became the prime driver for connectivity and we developed technologies to support voice services. However, communication through voice was not a life changing experience. It just led to an increase in teledensity.
During the past 10 years (2010-20), however, the basic needs of people have changed substantially. As a result, we see voice and data, predominantly data, becoming the means to economic development. This is because India has really grown in the past two to three years. However, we still lag behind the global average in terms of connectivity and fibre deployed per capita (as compared to China and the US). Even in terms of broadband penetration or speed of broadband, we are far behind the global measures.
To this end, the public and private sectors need to adopt a more collaborative approach. Unfortunately, the government still considers digital infrastructure a private investment, when most of the countries have developed it as an infrastructure for the country. Second, I see a disintegrated approach in terms of technology. We find that machine-to-machine communications and Industry 4.0 are two emerging trends. With the emergence of these trends, both telcos and over-the-top players are looking to create new networks of the future, which have not been experienced by India in the last 20 years. There is a bigger complexity when we talk about digital infrastructure because future networks cannot be wireless only. They have to be fibre dominated, moving from proprietary hardware to open source and supported by software-driven control.
There is a whole paradigm shift happening today. When 2G was being built, there was only 2G/3G. There was no thought about the future needs of consumers. Today, we are in an era where we know what the future generation needs are. In line with the changing needs, the design and implementation methods for our networks have to change. 5G or 4G largely hinges on the fibre network. Broadband experience in terms of speeds can be improved through fibre. Further, smart cities require fibre backhaul. Fibre infrastructure is going to be very critical for us to focus on implementing large programmes like Digital India and Smart Cities. However, fiberisation is a mammoth task for us.
For the development of digital infrastructure, both telcos and internet content providers should be engaged in decisions regarding networks and designs.
The important thing that I expect from the government is good work in the area of policy creation. Further, we need to make sure that projects in India are delivered with good governance and ease of doing business.
“When 2G was being built, there was only 2G/3G. There was no thought about the future needs of consumers. Today, we are in an era where we know what the future generation needs are.” K.S. Rao
Both consumer needs as well as markets have changed a lot since the time telecom infrastructure was originally planned in India. As a result, the scale of infrastructure deployed in the past six years has changed the entire telecom infrastructure landscape in India. Today, we have around 225,000 tower sites and over 350,000 km of fibre.
Jio’s network infrastructure organisation has five verticals. These five pillars are intra-city fibre, intercity fibre, fibre-to-the-home, infrastructure facilities and towers. Fiberisation and towers are the two key elements of any infrastructure project. In terms of fibre execution, we employed trenching techniques like horizontal directional drilling (HDD) and micro trenching across India, wherever it was permitted. In areas where we could not get permission, we adopted a structured cabling method of installing optical fibre cable (OFC). We are looking for a good understanding and appreciation of these methods by the central and state government agencies so that infrastructure growth can be significantly faster.
The capacity and capability of fibre execution on a mega scale is one of our core areas and strength. On an average, we are adding about 600 km of OFC every day. In terms of deep fiberisation, 70 per cent of the towers in Delhi have already been fiberised. We also pioneered lithiumion batteries in the telecom infrastructure space in India, which replaced lead acid batteries that were in use for a long time. Further, Jio has deployed less than 50 per cent diesel generators compared to other operators, which has helped us in minimising the fuel consumption and reducing the carbon footprint. We have also laid emphasis on the mechanisation of field activities and tools and dashboards, which is extremely important to keep a control over project execution.
The rate of internet penetration in India is just about 34 per cent. Although it has definitely improved from 1 per cent 17 years ago, it still has a lot of scope for improvement. The fixed broadband penetration rate in India stands at a mere 1 per cent as against 30 per cent in developed countries. Therefore, the next big growth agenda for the country is to develop a robust infrastructure for fixed broadband. To this end, fibre connectivity needs to be extended to handle the data capacity and applications that would be needed to run our cities and countries in the future.
To accelerate the growth of infrastructure, the following critical points need to be borne in mind. The adoption and implementation methods of the authorities and the DoT guidelines should have suitable service-level agreements with standard and structured charges, which will definitely be able to accelerate the roll-out. Further, authorities need to suggest an alternative method for aerial cabling. Moreover, there should be digital mapping of telecom towers.
To conclude, we have a great local success story when it comes to telecom infrastructure. But, we also have an equal opportunity to rewrite and create a greater growth story when it comes to broadband infrastructure.
“We have a great local success story for telecom infrastructure. But we also have an equal opportunity to rewrite and create a greater growth story for broadband infrastructure.” V. Sridhar