Subash Vasudevan, Chief Business Officer, iBus Networks

The ever-evolving digital landscape is propelling digital infrastructure providers to revamp their strategies to stay abreast of the fast changing technological developments. One such company, iBus Networks, is working towards transitioning from iBus 1.0 to iBus 2.0, which will cater to a wider range of connectivity solutions for both indoors as well as outdoors. In an interview with, Subash Vasudevan, Chief Business Officer, iBus Networks, talks about the company’s transition strategies, key projects in the pipeline and growth plans…

How has India’s digital landscape changed in the past few years? What role are digital infrastructure providers like iBus Networks playing in this transformation?

Of India’s 1.35 billion population, approximately 1 billion people have mobile conn­ec­tions. Of these, merely 600 million have an internet connection. iBus sees a huge op­portunity to change this marketplace. At iBus, we provide in-building mobile conn­ec­tivity solutions. For the 1 billion mobile connections, maximum consumption happens inside the building. Around 70 per cent of the wake time is inside the building, where users require mobile connectivity with seamless network coverage. iBus plays a key role in providing connectivity and en­su­ring no call drops inside buildings, offic­es, malls, etc. In the last five years, iBus has covered an area of almost 1 billion square feet in in-building connectivity. Going forward, iBus will also be enabling connectivity outside the building.

What have been the key business highlights for the company during the past year?

iBus has grown multifold both organically and inorganically. While there was a delay in organic growth due to travelling restrictions brought about by Covid-19, iBus witnessed major inorganic growth. In April 2021, the ac­qui­si­tion of one of our competitors, Ubico Networks, culminated, making us the lar­gest neutral host in-building voice data network provider in India. We also managed to bring in a new investor for iBus Networks, Morgan Stanley India Infras­tructure. With this support, iBus has taken a leap forward in setting up a scalable network. It has not only set up a mobile cellular network, but has also been involved in Wi-Fi data, internet of things (IoT) payloads, etc. iBus is now a unique digital solution provider.

In terms of organic growth, the Covid scenario combined with operators’ dema­nd for high-end connectivity gave us an opportunity to grow 40-50 million square feet in terms of in-building connectivity. We inc­reased our investment and manpower, set up a new of­fi­ce in Benga­luru, and expanded our bran­ches in the NCR. iBus strived to expand its footprint in Ass­am and collaborated with Assam Elec­tronics Developme­nt Corporation Limi­ted (AMTRON). Under this partnership, iBus aspires to offer seamless neutral cellu­lar/Wi-Fi/data connectivity in large campuses, IT parks, hospitals, special economic zones, commercial buildings, etc. to their existing and potential customers both locally and internationally.

What are some of the digital infrastructure projects and partnerships that you are currently working on?

We are focusing on smart cities and smart building projects with our ready solutions for data and IoT to enable intelligent building management. For example, one of the high-end projects we are currently working on is smart street lights on campus, which will help monitor power consumption and ensure that street lights are not on unnecessarily. We are also working on smart waste management and smart cameras or surveillance procedures.

The government has instilled a mandate that India should convert all manual electrical power meters to smart meters to eliminate the wastage and theft of electricity. As per the mandate, 215 million meters must be installed in India within a span of three years. iBus plays a pivotal role with its solutions, which allow smart meters to capture the data consumption of each house. This data is transmitted wirelessly to the cloud. From the cloud, discoms can take the data for billing purposes. At the next level, the network operation centre can track the payment and remotely switch off signals of payment defaulters. We are bidding on such large projects in India.

The following are some of our digital infrastructure projects:

  • Airport cellular connectivity at 25 airports across the country
  • Connectivity in multi-use buildings like tech parks, residential units and hospitals – 45 million square feet coverage
  • Solutions for 65 government hospitals
  • 90 billion units automatic meter infrastructure for smart meters

In terms of partnerships, we are partnering with connectivity protocol companies, public sector units, technology original equipment manufacturers, real estate investment trusts, the Global Mobile Standards Association (GSMA), etc. Some examples include:

  • Sigfox for IoT
  • AWS for tech cloud; Kubernetes for containerisation
  • GSMA
  • Brookfield real estate investment trust (REIT)

What is your outlook for the in-building solutions market in India?

iBus plays a huge role in ensuring uninterrupted connectivity inside the building. A minimum compound annual growth rate of 12-13 per cent is expected in the in-buil­ding solution (IBS) domain till 2025 according to recent research reports. In India, urbanisation has grown from 30 per cent a few years ago to 40-45 per cent now. With more urbanisation, indoor consumption increases. There is a huge opportunity for iBus in setting up IBS infrastructure.

Today, 40 per cent of 1 billion mobile phone users are using feature phones. With the launch of devices such as the JioPhone, at least 50 per cent of feature phone users are going to migrate to smartphones. Ow­ing to this, data consumption inside the house will shoot up and the re­qui­rement for IBS is also going to increase. Moreover, the advent of 5G is going to increase indoor consumption. iBus is ready with its solutio­ns to support this growth.

What opportunities will the onset of 5G bring for iBus?

As a business, we may not be directly invol­v­ed in making a huge change in the infra­str­ucture, but we will get involved to chan­ge the way the network is built. iBus is very keen to be involved in creating virtual networks or software-defined network (SDN) technologies. This will lead to growth moni­toring and expansion in the software world, which is much different from the infra world. Therefore, iBus 2.0 will be in­volved in 5G roll-out and support operato­rs by creating a virtual environment, whi­ch, in technical terms, is called open radio access network (ORAN) or virtual RAN.

What are the key challenges facing digital infrastructure players in India? Do you have a regulatory wishlist?

There are some legacy issues, such as right of way (RoW), that need to be resolved. RoW should be free of cost. iBus has been su­ccessful to some extent in changing the para­digm, as in some places RoW is now gi­ven without any commercial involvement. How­ever, some bottlenecks are still there.

Another challenge is related to the National Building Code. When a particular building is constructed, there is a standard for electricity and for plumbing but there is no standard for connectivity. We have written white papers to the government to ensure connectivity is a mandate during construction, so that there is no hassle in getting RoW.

The recent structural and procedural re­forms announced by the government ha­ve the potential to improve the financial he­al­th of telcom companies by reducing the risk of India becoming a duopoly. How­­ever, there is still a lack of clarity with respect to telcos’ financial obligations, which impact the sector as a whole. Other regulatory cha­llenges include lack of a consistent operating model with respect to RoW for digital infrastructure across builders, REIT and real estate intermediaries. Further, ambiguous and incomplete guidelines with respect to data privacy, se­curity and net neutrality increase business risks, and make a sub-optimal business case.

What are the company’s expansion plans for the next three years? What new products/ projects are you working on?

iBus 1.0, as we call it, was a classic company, as we only focused on in-building solutions. However, iBus 2.0 will be a bit different as we will be talking about Wi-Fi solutions, IoT, intelligent building ma­na­gement solutions, digital analytics inside buildings, etc. Our existing infrast­ructure is 5G-ready, provided spectrum allocation is in the range of 700-2700 MHz. iBus now looks to expand its in­door digital connectivity solutions along with seamless integration of IoT, building management so­lu­tions, digital analytics for smart cities, metros and airport, and all categories of commercial projects in India and globally.

Till now, iBus has been an India-focused company and the largest IBS pro­vider here. Slowly, we are exploring oppo­r­tun­ities to expand outside India, such as in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. We are also invol­ved with US-based partners and we will be offering new solutions through them.

Our growth opportunities are fourfold:

  • Geographical expansion both in India and globally. In India, iBus 2.0 will inc­rease coverage from the current 51 cities to 200 cities to bridge the digital divide
  • Transform and upgrade the existing 4G network by adopting network function virtualisation and SDN.
  • Design and launch 5G solutions.
  • Focus on the IoT network to enable and orchestrate use cases for machine-to-ma­chine communication.