The Indian telecom sector has been actively deploying cutting-edge technologies over the past few years. In 2020, this technology push intensified and several new trends emerged in this space. First, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic – which made it difficult to physically maintain networks – ushered in an era of automated and predictive networks with self-healing capabilities. The majority of Indian telcos leveraged technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and virtualisation to create adaptable and programmable networks that require minimum human intervention. Second, the concept of building open radio access networks (O-RANs) gathered steam among operators. During the year, all major telcos started building networks based on the concept of O-RAN to remain future fit. Going forward, it will be these automated and open networks, created by leveraging next-generation technologies, that will enable telcos to lay the foundation for a robust 5G world.

A look at the key technology trends that shaped the telecom sector in 2020…

Deploying massive MIMO

Massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technology has been playing a vital role in enabling the march towards 5G. It does this by helping telcos build a 5G-ready transport network that offers increased capacity and coverage without investment in additional spectrum.

In India, Vodafone Idea (Vi) has been at the forefront of massive MIMO adoption. In fact, the operator claims to have undertaken India’s largest – and the world’s third largest – massive MIMO deployment exercise. It has deployed more than 12,000 massive MIMO sites across Mumbai, Delhi-NCR, Ahmedabad, Pune, Hyderabad, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Vi also partnered with Nokia to deploy more than 5,500 time division long term evolution (LTE) massive MIMO cells in the 2500 MHz spectrum band in eight service areas – Mumbai, Kolkata, Gujarat, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh (East), Uttar Pradesh (West), Rest of Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. Further, the operator deployed India’s first AI-based massive MIMO network in partnership with Huawei.

Bharti Airtel, too, has been active in the massive MIMO domain. It has deployed more than 100 hops of enhanced MIMO microwave link, based on the latest MIMO technology developed by Huawei. Meanwhile, Reliance Jio has been deploying massive MIMO technology in some of the metro cities that are seeing huge traffic growth and resulting in a bad data speed experience. Further, Jio has started commercial deployment of massive MIMO technology in areas where it is not able to add new sites easily.

Moving towards softwarisation and virtualisation

Amidst the rising demand for streaming and video-based applications and social media platforms, especially during the pandemic, telcos have started resorting to softwarisation and virtualisation to ensure minimum intervention at individual sites. Network function virtualisation (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) technologies are together reshaping network functionality from traditional integrated hardware-centric ones to modular hardware-agnostic frameworks. SDN and NFV can provide bandwidth flexibility, automation and programmability, enabling telecom providers to monetise their entire range of cloud services. The technologies also provide them the flexibility to scale up (or down) as per varying business demands.

As India takes the leap towards 5G, operators will need to make both SDN and NFV critical parts of their new network architecture. However, operators in India are currently at a nascent stage in terms of deploying these technologies, as compared to their global peers. Among operators, only Reliance Jio has, reportedly, started future-proofing its national transport network with SDN capabilities and is laying the foundation for an adaptive network.

Embracing O-RAN

O-RAN is another technology domain that witnessed immense activity during 2020. Unlike traditional RAN, O-RAN decouples hardware and software, giving operators more flexibility to deploy and upgrade their network architecture. Decoupling the hardware and software functions reduces the time-to-market. Further, the technology reduces operators’ reliance on exclusive vendors, as it allows them to build and operate a RAN based on mix-and-match components from different vendors.

Since telecom stakeholders have recognised the benefits that open networks bring to the table, the global O-RAN space has been brimming with activity. The operator community, vendors, and other stakeholders are actively engaged in forming collaborative alliances to help drive uptake.

Airtel was the first operator in India to commercially deploy a virtualised RAN (vRAN) solution based on the disaggregated and open architecture defined by the O-RAN ALLIANCE. It deployed Altiostar’s open vRAN solution across multiple cities in India. Further, Airtel recently hosted the India region’s first Plugfest for the O-RAN ALLIANCE. During the event, Airtel partnered with leading players such as Altiostar, Altran, ASOCS, Mavenir, NEC, STL, VIAVI Solutions, VVDN and Xilinx to demonstrate multiple technology use cases, including 5G.

Reliance Jio, too, has been quite vocal about its plans to accelerate deployment of an O-RAN-centric disaggregated RAN solution where AI, cloud infrastructure, blockchain and augmented/virtual reality form the essential building blocks for new-generation programmable digital infrastructure. During 2020, Jio announced its partnership with US-based Qualcomm to develop 5G solutions based on O-RAN. With these, Jio will be able to build, design and integrate its own network. As per brokerage firm UBS, Jio’s self-built 5G solutions could bring down network roll-out costs by 10-15 per cent as compared to legacy networks, and open up export opportunities worth $10 billion for the telco.

Vi has been leveraging Mavenir’s O-RAN solutions for 4G to scale up adoption. The telco has also been engaged with partners within the O-RAN space for developing a robust solution to cater to traffic requirements on its network.

Cloudification of networks

Cloud deployments across networks remained a high priority for telcos during 2020. The cloud is one technology which, if orchestrated appropriately, can make service deployment much easier as well as scalable.

During the year, Bharti Airtel completed the first phase of its open hybrid cloud network deployment in collaboration with IBM and Red Hat’s portfolio of hybrid cloud and cognitive enterprise capabilities. The architecture will enable Airtel to manage communications across distributed network environments. Airtel also partnered with Nokia to leverage the latter’s CloudBand-based software products for powering its voice over LTE (VoLTE) network in India. The cloud-based VoLTE deployment was undertaken to cover all 22 telecom service areas in the country, using commercial off-the-shelf IT hardware with cloud-based virtual network functions (VNFs), which consumes much less power and space compared to the traditional 2G/3G circuit switched legacy core. According to Airtel, this is the country’s largest open cloud-based VoLTE network.

Meanwhile, Vi shifted 100 per cent of its IT application stack to its universal cloud, marking the industry’s largest private cloud deployment. Further, the telco partnered with IBM and Red Hat for the deployment of an open universal hybrid cloud. The hybrid cloud platform enables IT and network applications to run on a common cloud architecture, designed to deliver breakthrough return on investment improvements through the optimisation of capex, opex, skills and automation investments across both the network and IT application domains.

Leveraging AI, ML to automate networks

Another interesting trend witnessed during the past year was the automation of telecom networks with the support of cutting-edge technologies such as AI and ML. These networks can manage almost everything, from planning coverage and capacity to migrating or building themselves, and testing and running automatically. They can detect problems even before they occur and can proactively take steps to prevent them. All these capabilities combined in the form of an automated network can help telcos ensure near-zero network downtime, usher in network stability and deliver an improved customer experience.

While telcos had been warming up to the idea of automated networks over the past few years, the Covid-19 crisis made automation the need of the hour. This is because maintaining physical networks was a huge challenge during the pandemic, especially during the lockdown period. To overcome this challenge and be future ready, telcos started investing in network automation. Airtel began preparing its network for automated deployments both on the core and the transport side, and is now rolling out its networks based on zero-touch provisioning, wherein the configurations are fed remotely and all the automation happens through a closed-loop process. Airtel entered into partnerships with IBM, Red Hat, Cisco and Ericsson for modernising its network and enabling automation. Through the partnership with Cisco, Airtel deployed India’s first automated 5G-ready Ethernet over fibre internet protocol network to enhance network availability, capacity and scale. Recently, the company renewed its agreement with Ericsson to provide pan-Indian managed network operations through the Ericsson Operations Engine. Under the partnership, Ericsson will deploy the latest automation, ML and AI technologies to enhance Airtel’s mobile network performance and customer experience.

Like Airtel, Vi has been doing zero-touch provisioning in its transport networks for some time now. The operator partnered with IBM and Red Hat to deploy a hybrid cloud platform that enables radical automation through standardisation. Vi has also partnered with Cisco to deploy an automated multicloud network across India. Meanwhile, Reliance Jio partnered with Guavus to leverage the latter’s AI-based solutions to provide a real-time customer experience and predictive analytics that would enable Jio to automate network troubleshooting and garner key marketing insights. State-run operator Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) too started automating its networks and signed an MoU with Ciena. Under the MoU, Ciena’s 5G network solutions will add scale and enable network automation in order to support a new age of mobile connectivity at BSNL.

From IoT to NB-IoT

Narrowband internet of things (NB-IoT) is a type of low-power wide area network technology standard developed by the Third Generation Partner Project to address the requirements of IoT. It has the capability to enable a wide range of IoT devices and services. It is best suited for connecting devices on existing mobile networks and is ideal for applications that communicate small amounts of data over long periods of time. Of late, there has been an increase in the uptake of NB-IoT deployment among telcos.

Jio, for one, had claimed that it expected to reach at least 1 billion connected IoT devices through its platform by 2022. Meanwhile, Airtel has been investing in developing the NB-IoT ecosystem. Vi too has rolled out commercial NB-IoT proofs of concept in select cities. Most recently, BSNL, in partnership with Skylo Technologies India, announced a satellite-based NB-IoT solution. The solution, developed indigenously by Skylo, will connect with BSNL’s satellite ground infrastructure and provide pan-Indian coverage.

Securing data through blockchain

Blockchain is another cutting-edge technology that has started witnessing uptake among Indian telcos. Blockchain adoption gathered pace when the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) decided to overhaul the existing regulations on pesky calls and came up with the Telecom Commercial Communications Customer Preference Regulations, which promoted the adoption of blockchain-based distributed ledger technology (DLT). Taking TRAI’s cue, telcos have now started deploying blockchain technology to mitigate the problem of unsolicited commercial communications.

In February 2020, BSNL announced that it will use blockchain to tackle the commercial calling menace. Recently, the telco developed a DLT-based portal to create a registry of commercial and business entities that want to communicate with its customers. Other telcos, such as Bharti Airtel, Vi and Reliance Jio, are also exploring the use of blockchain solutions by partnering with technology vendors. Vi is developing blockchain solutions in partnership with Tanla Solutions. Similarly, Reliance Jio has partnered with Tech Mahindra to develop a blockchain solution that can store its subscribers’ data in an encrypted format, and give users the option to provide consent for the kind of SMSs and calls they would like to receive. Bharti Airtel, too, has made a similar deployment through a tie-up with IBM.

Journey to 5G

While telcos focused on technologies such as massive MIMO, cloud, NB-IoT, AI, ML and blockchain in 2020, they are expected to embrace open, software-based and virtualised networks in a big way in 2021.

These deployments will help telcos in their journey towards 5G. In fact, 5G is expected to be the biggest technological disrupter in 2021. With the Cellular Operators Association of India recently stating that it expects 5G roll-outs in India to begin in late 2021, telcos are making sure they stay on top of their technology game to achieve rapid commercial roll-out of 5G.

By Kuhu Singh Abbhi