The data surge in India can be largely attributed to indoor consumption. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), an estimated 80 per cent of mobile traffic either originates or terminates inside a building. In light of the in-building data consumption trends, it has become critical to provide quality indoor telecom services in residential multi-storey buildings, commercial complexes, hotels, airports, etc. Relying on an outdoor network to serve indoor devices results in low quality signals, call drops and intermittent coverage. Thus, in-building solutions (IBS) have become as vital to buildings as water or electricity.
IBS ensures the efficient usage of spectrum and reduces the load on macro cell sites. These solutions could also reduce the need for new towers. From the operators’ perspective, effective indoor connectivity can be seen as a key differentiating factor in the face of increasing competition. IBS solutions provide an opportunity to improve the quality of service (QoS) inside densely populated buildings, thus driving subscriber loyalty.
As for tower companies, there is a significant opportunity to build neutral host last-mile fibre and IBS infrastructure, which can cater to multiple operators. In response to TRAI’s consultation paper on IBS, the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association of India stated that it is in the best economic interest of the industry if IBS infrastructure is installed by infrastructure providers Category-I (IP-1s) and subsequently, fairly shared by multiple telecom service providers (TSPs).
While providing in-building access can open up a new revenue stream for telcos and towercos, there are several operational and regulatory challenges that restrict them from providing a seamless indoor connectivity experience.
tele.net takes a look at the current scenario in the IBS space, the key regulatory developments, emerging opportunities and the challenges facing telcos and towercos…
To ensure a ubiquitous voice and data network inside commercial and residential complexes and large public places, the TSPs/IP-1s must gain access to in-building facilities and infrastructure. In India, a building owner or builder enters into an exclusive contract with one or more TSPs to install IBS and provide connectivity and telecommunication services on the premises. These TSPs may not be open to sharing their IBS, establishing a monopoly of sorts. As a result, consumers are not able to avail of services from a TSP of their choice.
In many cases, building owners allow access to TSPs to deploy IBS or use existing infrastructure although at exorbitant rates. These are usually public places such as airports and malls, which cannot be left uncovered and leave TSPs with no option but to succumb to such unreasonable demands. In the process, the benefits of competition are lost. Consequently, QoS deteriorates and price levels surpass competitive thresholds. In view of the above, regulatory intervention is needed to facilitate efficient sharing of IBS to improve QoS and lower costs.
Since it is not practical for all TSPs to install their own IBS infrastructure owing to space and cost constraints, sharing of IBS and other infrastructure has become crucial. In line with this, TRAI, in January 2017, recommended to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to make IBS infrastructure sharing mandatory among operators and infrastructure providers. According to TRAI, operators should share IBS infrastructure, including optical fibre cable/copper cable, with other operators in large public places, and commercial and residential complexes in a transparent, fair and non-discriminatory manner. TSPs should not be allowed to enter into exclusive contracts with building owners, which could be ensured by adding a suitable clause in the terms and conditions of the licence agreement of TSPs and the registration certificate of IP-1s.
In October 2017, the Telecom Commission approved TRAI’s proposal for sharing of in-building infrastructure among telecom operators. However, in March 2018, in response to TRAI’s recommendations, DoT said that mandating infrastructure sharing may not be in alignment with its policy of maintaining a light-touch regulation in the telecom sector. According to DoT, sharing of passive and active infrastructure is already permitted and TSPs are free to enter into mutual sharing agreements. Moreover, the deployment of IBS requires a licence whereas IP-1 is only a registration, hence IP-1s cannot provide IBS. In response, TRAI said that although there is no regulatory barrier in infrastructure sharing, TSPs and IP-1s are typically not interested in sharing infrastructure inside a building. Therefore, it reiterated its recommendations to DoT for mandating infrastructure sharing and allowing IP-1s to deploy IBS. However, the final regulation on the matter is still awaited from DoT.
The biggest challenge today for TSPs is getting access to a building at reasonable rates. In cases when a builder or a building owner enters into an exclusive agreement with one TSP, a monopoly is created, which stifles competition. Further, restrictive right-of-way (RoW) policies of local bodies prevent TSPs from providing backhaul connectivity on the premises. On the technical side, there are challenges in choosing the right technology and in the deployment of these technologies. While distributed antenna systems (DAS) are the most popular solutions for providing in-building wireless coverage, they are mostly deployed in buildings with a high concentration of traffic.
Further, DAS solutions are typically customised projects since each building is unique, making the deployment process expensive for most enterprises. Although technological advancements have reduced the cost of these solutions, they still require substantial time and money. This makes it difficult for building owners, managers and architects to justify the cost involved. Moreover, retrofitting these solutions in buildings is both cumbersome and expensive as compared to installing them during construction. Deploying IBS can take weeks or months and disrupt the day-to-day activities of an enterprise. These solutions also require specialised infrastructure and highly skilled labour for installation.
The way forward
Going forward, the introduction of 5G services, along with the explosion of internet-of-things devices, will bring the need for IBS to the fore. IBS sharing is set to emerge as a key trend, with several operators requesting government intervention to ensure fair and efficient sharing of IBS infrastructure. Infrastructure sharing in a fair, non-discriminatory and transparent manner is crucial for enhanced coverage and improved QoS. Regulatory focus is also needed to improve the implementation of the RoW rules in order to facilitate time-bound and hassle-free single-window clearances for the requisite backhaul. To achieve this, clear rules will have to be chalked out by the government with fair-play guidelines for building owners, IP-1s, TSPs and other players in the ecosystem.