In the Indian telecom sector, active infrastructure sharing has been limited to intra-circle and intercircle roaming and spectrum sharing. However, the recently notified National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) 2018 emphasises its importance and impact on stakeholders. Active sharing allows operators to cut down their capex and opex, reduce time-to-market and experience higher data throughput by pooling different spectrum bands. It also gives them more control over service offering differentiators such as quality of service, charging, billing and customer management and allows for better utilisation of network resources.

Types of active infrastructure sharing

There are four active network sharing models – basic radio access network (RAN), multiple operator RAN (MORAN), multiple operator core network (MOCN) and gateway core network (GWCN). Indian operators can adopt any of these, apart from GWCN, depending on their choice of sharing. Under the basic RAN sharing model, the site and the mast (including antennas and feeders) are shared. Under MORAN, all elements of the site are shared including radio network controllers, base station equipment and antennas. However, spectrum is not shared under such an agreement. As per the MOCN sharing model, radio spectrum is shared along with all elements in MORAN. The advantages of the MOCN sharing model are shared operation and planning cost, and increased efficiency due to spectrum pooling. However, such a model affects service differentiation in terms of availability and network quality, and may not be viable under existing spectrum usage regulations.

Policy push

Under NDCP’s Connect India mission, one of the strategies to create robust digital communications infrastructure involves the promotion of active infrastructure sharing via independent neutral hosts such as infrastructure providers (IP-1s). The NDCP 2018 aims to “encourage and facilitate sharing of active infrastructure by enhancing the scope of IP-1s, and promoting and incentivising the deployment of common sharable, passive as well as active infrastructure”.

Active sharing and 5G

The cost savings potential of network sharing will be even greater with 5G as greenfield deployments are better suited for sharing because they avoid the cost of network consolidation. The cost of small cell deployment can be reduced by up to 50 per cent if three players share the same network. The rationale for sharing extends beyond cost as it could address many roadblocks to 5G deployment in urban areas such as urban disruption and visual pollution from the installation of excessive equipment and fibre. As 5G deployment is yet to begin in the country, now is the right time to review the regulatory environment to make it conducive for active sharing.

Constraints and challenges

Implementation challenges have often deterred the wide-scale adoption of active sharing in India. Finding the right partner is a challenge owing to the lack of trust and a neutral third party to bridge the differences. Further, operators run the risk of revealing confidential information regarding each other’s cost, operations and technology. The limited scope to differentiate services on the basis of network coverage is another challenge.

Apart from the aforementioned challenges, there is a lack of clear-cut definitions of active elements and passive elements. IP-1s cannot own the active network elements like antenna, in-building solutions (IBS) and small cells, due to which active infrastructure sharing has not picked up pace. Despite being B2B operators and causing no potential loss of revenue to the government, IP1s are struggling to enhance the scope of active infrastructure sharing.

The way forward

The sharing of active network would reduce the financial burden on telecom operators, thus helping in the creation of a robust telecom infrastructure. This would also significantly improve the quality of service and enable applications such as connected cars and connected devices on the 5G network. There is an urgent need to allow IP-1s the ownership of small cells and IBS to help them cater to the ever increasing data demand. Digital dark infrastructure should also be brought under the purview of IP-1s for the faster roll-out of 5G and adoption of the plug-and-play model for small cells. Going forward, given the financial state of the telecom sector and the impending launch of 5G, the outsourcing of sharing functions to neutral third party hosts will be crucial. They will manage and facilitate the entire process, and reduce the burden on telecom service providers. s

Based on a presentation by T.R. Dua, Director General, TAIPA