In 2022, India’s share in the global deployment of optical fibre stood at 3 per cent. It is roughly around 18 million fibre km (fkm), against the global deployment of around 530 million fkm. China accounts for about half of the 530 million fkm. Notably, about 18 per cent of the global total optical fibre, amounting to 90 fkm, has been manufactured in India.
While India is a fast growing market, there is a notable disparity between the deployment and manufacturing of optical fibre. A huge gap exists between India’s deployment share at 3 per cent and its share in manufactured optical fibre at 18 per cent. The remaining 15 per cent comprises exports from India. In fact, India is a major exporter in the optical fibre space.
Today, India has emerged as a global hub for manufacturing optical fibre. The installed capacity for optical fibre in India accounts for around 18 per cent, and for optical fibre cable (OFC), the percentage is even higher. This is a significant number. Very few countries worldwide have an integrated ecosystem, which encompasses fibre production, from the raw glass to drawing, cabling and connectivity. India is one of these countries. The others are the US, China and Japan. Further, most of the advanced telecom networks in the world including those in the US and Europe use optical fibres that are made in India.
STL is the largest in the optical communications domain in India. However, several new players are rapidly entering this space. STL has backward integrated everything, starting from silicon metal to fibre draw. It has eight global production facilities. Our optical fibre capacity stands at 50 million fkm while OFC capacity stands at 35 million fkm.
Overall, optical fibre manufacturing is moving towards sustainability. While it is not required in India at present, due to the prominence of export markets, the sustainability angle is gaining importance. For example, STL is one of the first companies in the optical communications space that has a zero-waste-to-landfill certified facility in India. Some of the most advanced technologies, manufacturing techniques and capacities in the optical fibre space are being used in India.
However, the question remains: whether appropriate networks are being laid given the manufacturing capability. Currently, the answer is no. Looking at the network planning scope for active infrastructure such as switches, routers and other aspects of infrastructure that require power, there is typically a six to seven-year cycle. However, with the transition to passive infrastructure and physical infrastructure like fibre, cables and ducts, the projection extends to two to three decades. Once these are laid in the ground, retraction is not easy. There is a need to assess whether a network design should be for the next six to seven years or for two to three decades. India has been ignoring the 20 to 30-year horizon. It is time to change that mindset.
Typically, there are three requisites for networks. First is technology, which can sustain networks for over 20 years. Second is fibre and cable, which require low operations and maintenance. The third requirement is future-proofing the network. Globally, networks are deploying cables with around 432 fibres in a single cable. This will create a highly flexible network architecture, enabling global markets to future-proof their networks.
India is deploying technology that was available 20 years ago, hindering the development of future-ready networks. The deployment of D-Fibre, which is now outdated, serves as an example. For this to change, there is a need to shift focus from the isolated procurement cost of individual cables to comprehensive network ownership expenses. Further, there is a need to transform research and development (R&D) in the optical communications space in India. This will transform India from being a mere market follower to a market leader. This requires a favourable R&D policy. For instance, incentivising patents through tax breaks can spur innovation in the industry. Another critical factor is fostering an optical communications ecosystem. Net, net, India is already equipped with innovation and manufacturing capacity, and needs to leverage its full potential.
Based on a presentation by Dr Jitendra Balakrishna, Chief Technology Officer, Optical Network Business, STL