Growth in optic fibre cable (OFC) deployment is fundamental to improving the quality of telecom services and catering to the surging mobile internet demand. To this end, telecom operators are strengthening their OFC reach to deliver high speed data services.
Fibre key for 5G readiness
With the conclusion of India’s first 5G auction, operators are all set to roll out 5G services. Needless to say, fiberisation will play a key role in making India 5G-ready. In view of this, the government launched the National Broadband Mission in December 2019, which aims to fiberise 70 per cent of telecom towers by 2024. To date, 35 per cent of these towers have been fiberised. By the time 5G gets commercialised, most likely in one or two years, the country will have a well-developed fibre network. Meanwhile, nearly 2,200,000 km of OFC has been laid overall, which is expected to increase to 5,000,000 km in the next two to three years. The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) is making continuous efforts to achieve this target.
All the operators have a sizeable footprint in terms of fibre network. In particular, Bharti Airtel has a fibre network footprint of 400,000 km. The telco has been expanding its fibre coverage by 40,000 km every year. It aims to increase this by an additional 20,000 km per year. Moreover, Airtel has over 55,000 fiberised sites.
Expanding fibre footprint
Fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) services are gaining major traction in India. From a service provider perspective, a lot of potential remains to be tapped on this front. Further, 5G requires two times more fibre deployment from the backhaul point of view. Thus, to meet the growing demand and fibre requirements of 5G, more fibre needs to be deployed in order to achieve a soft launch of 5G by August 2022, and commercial launch by the end of 2022.
Airtel has strategic tie-ups with several smart city companies, private infrastructure providers and government programmes. Airtel’s existing FTTH network covers 18 million home passes. For fiscal year 2023, the telco will be relatively more aggressive and plans to achieve 5 million-6 million home passes through its own model as well as the local cable operator model.
RoW challenges remain
The Right of Way (RoW) Policy, 2016 exists at the central level. It has to be percolated to the state level. Although many states are aligning with the central RoW policy, the charges remain high, ranging from medium to extremely high levels. These high charges are the biggest pain points for operators. In addition, many state governments do not follow the “Dig Once” or the “Call-Before-You-Dig” policy. For instance, Bengaluru faces 8-10 per cent power cuts on a daily basis. Operators have to undertake repairs daily, incurring significant costs of about Rs 20,000-Rs 30,000 per repair. Another challenge pertaining to RoW is that in India there are monsoon bans in some states and towns, during which operators do not receive RoW permissions. So, the overall horizon of work is reduced to only about nine months, thereby affecting OFC roll-out.
Shortfall in manufacturing
On the manufacturing front, operators are facing a shortage of fibre preform manufacturing. Most of the Indian cable companies import preform, depending largely on China- and Japan-based manufacturers. This has led to a surge in prices. Thus, the Make in India initiative in this area must be promoted.
Lack of test set-up
According to operators, India lacks proper setups for testing cables. Operators depend only on government set-ups, which too lack proper ecosystems. Therefore, the required infrastructure and skill sets need to be developed in the industry to enable the testing of fibre cables.
The way forward
As the country gets set to roll-out 5G services, telcos are stepping up their pace of fiberisation, especially in key cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru, irrespective of RoW charges, as they have already invested huge capex in sourcing spectrum.
Going forward, the COAI believes that there should be training for splicers to cover the splicer scarcity for OFC deployment. There is also a large gap from the operations perspective despite the huge roll-out of OFC networks. With new technologies and techniques coming in, there is a need for upskilling the workforce. Moreover, there is going to be a massive increase in street furniture, for which the government has eased the process with a simple registration procedure. However, testing and security issues will have to be kept in mind.
Based on a panel discussion between Abdul Ashfaq, National Head, Fibre Planning, Bharti Airtel, and VertikaMisra, Associate Director General, COAI