Ankit Agarwal, CEO, Connectivity Solutions Business, STL

Despite the Covid pandemic, 2020 turned out to be a good year for the Indian telecom network and technology vendors. Automation, softwarisation and virtualisation emerged as key trends while telcos took steps to make their networks future ready. Network up-gradation, especially in anticipation of 5G, will continue to be a key theme in 2021 as well. Ankit Agarwal, CEO, Connectivity Solutions Business, STL, shares his views on the performance of the sector in 2020, the key growth drivers, opportunities in the evolving 5G landscape and the future outlook…

How has the Indian telecom technology landscape evolved in 2020? What were some of the key business highlights for your company?

The year 2020 has been an inflection point for digital networks. The way people worked and lived in 2020 has exponentially increased data traffic both in city centres and suburban areas, putting data networks through a litmus test. The internet users grew significantly by 17 per cent from 2019 to 2020. Telecom service providers have shown resilience, connecting families and communities while keeping businesses logged on. Network creators also invested heavily in digital networks.

We saw technologies like fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) becoming mainstream. Owing to huge investments being made in digital networks, the optical fibre demand revived in 2020. The segment witnessed a year-on-year growth of 5 per cent in the first half of 2020, and a 7 per cent growth is estimated in 2021 on the back of FTTH deployments and the BharatNet initiative. The ongoing talks around open RAN  technology also converted into concrete plans in 2020. Airtel announced the deployment of vRAN software across its 4G network.

What were the key technology trends that emerged amidst the Covid-19 pandemic? Which of these will continue to shape the post-Covid world?

During the year, telcos started their cloud journey, bringing in cloud computing capabilities to the network edge to unlock the potential of newer technologies. Jio partnered with Microsoft, exclusively targeting small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Meanwhile, Bharti partnered with Amazon on enterprise products specifically for the Indian market. Cloud service providers invested heavily in new data centre build-outs, be it edge or collocation. Yotta Infrastructure plans to build three data centre parks with 11 hyperscale facilities in the next five to seven years.

While enterprises continued to adopt digital technologies, we also saw fiberisation initiatives by private players and the government. In newer digital networks, technologies like deep learning and machine learning (ML) algorithms helped companies achieve greater network efficiencies.

What are your views on India’s readiness to roll out 5G services? How are you engaging with your partners on this front or contributing to the overall ecosystem?

India is gradually building an indigenous 5G ecosystem for telecom equipment, design, development and manufacturing. 5G requires deep fiberisation in networks, especially on the backhaul side, but at present less than 30 per cent towers are fiberised, which needs to be scaled up to 80 per cent by 2022. There is a need to deploy 100 million fibre km OFC per year as against the current deployment rate of 25 million fibre km in order to have robust 5G connectivity.

STL is contributing to the 5G space by developing a Make in India hardware ecosystem that comprises 5G multi-band radio, smart 5G indoor small cells, Wi-Fi 6 access points, etc. We are also forming partnerships with 5G ecosystem players such as ASOCS, partnering with VMware and VVDN, and associating with IIT Madras, ORAN, ONAP, ONF and TIP.

What are your views on the government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat mission? How are you contributing to this mission? Do you have a policy/regulatory wish list on this front?

We believe that government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat vision, especially in the technology and telecom space, will lead the way for the next decade of network creation in India. This will place India among the top technology innovation and manufacturing hubs of the world. Optical fibre and cables are critical for building next-generation digital infrastructure. The demand for optical products is likely to grow to 20.08 million fibre km by 2021 and 24.48 million fibre km by 2022. To cater to this demand, we have reinitiated the capacity expansion of our OFC facility from 18 million fibre km to 33 million fibre km. STL is working towards building a home-grown high-tech ecosystem for Atmanirbhar Bharat and Digital India. However, to fully realise the potential of Atmanirbhar Bharat, the government should take some policy measures. These include easing the complexities of doing business in India, bringing Indian MSMEs up to date with the latest technology and incentivising infrastructure providers to enable fast execution of digital infrastructure projects. The government must extend the PLI scheme to support the existing telecom and high-tech industries in areas where significant investments have already been made.

Going forward, how do you see Indian telecom networks transform to become future ready? What will be the key opportunities and challenges?

In the beginning of 2020, we had envisioned four technology confluences that would shape the future of networks and now we see these confluences in the market dynamics. There is a lot of focus on building networks closer to the edge as it brings low latency and high agility, and improves customer experience. The move towards open source and disaggregation is also clearly visible. There is a seamless convergence of wireless and wired networks as seen in the case of 5G and FTTH. This will enable an excellent connectivity speed that is also very affordable. New-age networks are becoming more intelligent by combining connectivity, compute and storage.

The key challenge for Indian telecom networks will be to ensure superfast network modernisation. The faster the legacy networks will transcend to newer architecture, the better will be the pace of digital transformation for all.