Over the years, digital infrastructure has become an essential component for enabling a country’s growth. This is especially true in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to a surge in the adoption of digital tools. During the pandemic, the deployment of digital infrastructure like fibre has become critical for supporting the new normal of work-from-home.
However, the current level of fibre penetration in India remains fairly low in comparison to its global peers. The country continues to be highly under-fiberised with a per capita fibre coverage of 0.09 km, which is one-tenth of the global average of 0.9 km. Therefore, there is a need to scale up the fibre presence in India to reap the benefits of the emerging digital ecosystem.
Growth drivers for FTTx uptake
There are multiple factors driving the need for a robust fibre network across the country. For one, data usage is growing at a rapid pace, creating a critical need for robust fibesrised backhaul. In particular, the advent of the 5G era will create enormous demand for a fiberised backbone. Further, fibre-intensive networks will be crucial for supporting the deployment of cutting-edge technologies and solutions like internet of things, machine-to-machine, artificial intelligence, augmented/virtual reality, Industry 4.0, sensors and autonomous vehicles. Moreover, optical fibre cable (OFC)-based networks are critical for the delivery of high quality and content-rich home broadband services.
Today, utility- as well as content-based applications such as streaming videos, music, chats, gaming, news and e-governance have become the key drivers of data traffic. These require OFC connectivity for functioning. Large-scale fiberisation is also key for enabling the success of government programmes such as Digital India, BharatNet, the National Broadband Mission and the Smart Cities Mission as well as for meeting targets under the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018.
Key issues and challenges
The scaling up of fibre networks in India is not devoid of challenges, such as:
- RoW: Currently, obtaining right-of-way (RoW) at the state and local body levels requires multiple approvals. Meanwhile, RoW charges vary enormously across cities and states. Higher RoW charges make the fiberisation cost as high as Rs 10 million in metros. Moreover, telcos have to pay exorbitant reinstatement charges for laying OFC.
- Fibre cuts: Uncoordinated development activities such as road expansion, laying of electrical cables by multiple agencies and private contractors, waterlogging in monsoons and rodent attacks result in frequent cuts in inter- and intra-city fibre networks. India faces 14 cuts per 1,000 km per month on an average as against the international benchmark of 0.7 cuts.
- High total cost of ownership: Indian telcos have a two to three times faster fibre network capex replacement cycle as compared to global benchmarks due to higher active transport capex and operations and management opex.
- Others: Other challenges hampering fibre deployment include lack of skilled workforce and inadequate alternate and redundant paths.
Opportunities and outlook
Challenges notwithstanding, the expansion of OFC networks offers several opportunities to stakeholders in the ecosystem. For instance, there are multiple opportunities under the BharatNet project. Further, the fibre deployed by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited and Bharat Broadband Network Limited can be used to fiberise towers in rural and semi-urban areas. The dark fibre leased by other service providers can also be used to fiberise towers. In order to expedite fibre deployment, fibre sharing and fibre monetisation models can also be explored. In addition, a huge untapped opportunity lies in meeting the NDCP targets for fibre-to-the-tower, fibre-to-the-household and fibre-to-the-gram panchayat.
Going forward, the country needs to increase investments in optical fibre and other kinds of digital infrastructure. In fact, the deployment of fibre needs to be two to three times faster than the current pace. The sharing of fibre infrastructure and the concept of fibre aggregators should become the new norm. Further, supportive technologies can be used for strengthening fibre deployment and overcoming RoW challenges. New wireless technologies operating in the E and V bands, satellite communications, free space optical communication and upgraded cable TV networks are some suitable alternatives. Moreover, electricity poles, streetlights and other public infrastructure can be used to address RoW challenges. Another key step is to mandate the fiberisation of all buildings under the National Building Code.