In an era of booming data growth, Vodafone India has been focusing on not only augmenting its existing capacity but also on adopting new technologies like massive multiple-input multiple-output (M-MIMO), radio technology, cloud networks, software-defined networking (SDN) and analytics. This will help the operator in increasing its 4G play, launch voice over long term evolution
(VoLTE) services and lay the foundation for future 5G networks. Vishant Vora, chief technology officer, Vodafone India, talks about the evolving technology landscape, its market-readiness for 5G and the key technology trends that will shape the future of the industry. Excerpts…
How has the telecom technology landscape evolved in India over the past year? What are the key trends?
Over the past two decades, the telecom industry has transformed from a mere communication provider to a major enabler of a modern way of life – banking, shopping, entertainment, etc. – all on the move. This paradigm shift has been possible owing to technology transitioning from 2G to 3G to 4G and soon to 5G mobile networks that can support the increasing consumption of both voice and data, especially video and internet of things (IoT) applications. In such a scenario, operators have the opportunity to become the best enablers for industry applications and trustworthy business partners for enterprise customers. The key trends are as follows:
- Network optimisation through analytics: Analytics is being used to improve and accelerate network optimisation.
- Transformation to digital telecom: The customer life cycle experience has been significantly improved through digital touchpoints like the MyVodafone app. Further, the SIM activation time through e-KYC (know your customer) has come down from a minimum of one day to a maximum of 15 minutes.
- Implementation of carrier aggregation: This has been extensively used to enhance the customer experience.
- Deployment of caching solutions: Video and content are the key growth drivers for mobile data. The usage of online platforms such as Google, Facebook and YouTube has increased manyfold and in order to minimise the capex on backhaul, local caching has been adopted by all operators.
Where does Vodafone India stand in terms of technology advancement of networks?
Vodafone India has been pushing the frontiers of technology by embedding the key 5G principles in its state-of-the-art 4G+ deployments. Some examples include:
- M-MIMO deployments in select high-traffic locations along with design innovations to differentiate on spectral efficiencies.
- Significant enhancements over legacy radio and proprietary protocols through the development of new radio technologies.
- Early adoption of the cloud for key network applications, resulting in agility and efficiency advantages.
- Deployment of FlexRAN (open RAN) architecture that offers the benefit of integrating software from various original equipment manufacturers for different radio layers on the same platform.
- Focus on automation (SDN) and analytics-enabled designs as key drivers for network advancements.
- Deployment of caching solutions by content providers in the engineering, procurement and construction ecosystem.
- Digital initiatives taken in enterprise and mobility domains.
How has the uptake of data services been on your network? What are some of the challenges facing the market?
Data services have shown significant growth with the deployment of 4G networks. More than 20 per cent of smartphone users have migrated to 4G. In 2017, while the sites grew by about 3x, 4G traffic grew by about 30x. Apart from sites, a large part of capacity addition has taken place through additional spectrum. Vodafone is carrying more traffic on 4G networks than on 2G and 3G combined. Further, around 50 per cent of data traffic is driven by video.
The challenges facing the market include the huge disparity between data and revenue growth, and constant pressure to lower the cost of production. Capacity additions to meet the traffic growth also continue to be a huge challenge.
“The industry will move towards automation and cloud architecture given the challenges of improving the customer experience and maintaining a lower cost of operations.”
What are your views on the adoption of VoLTE service in India? Do you think it will gain mass adoption and replace traditional voice services in the near term?
At present, 2G voice traffic is still significant (almost 4x as compared to 3G voice) and the key for the adoption of VoLTE is a switch from feature phones to smartphones (with VoLTE capability) and thus servicing a core value proposition – VoLTE calls.
How is the role of fibre evolving across networks? What are your plans with regard to capacity expansion?
The traditional microwave backhaul network used to cater to 2G and 3G services has not been scaled up to support the huge demand for data. Optic fibre cable, with its virtually unlimited capacity, is the perfect backbone for the delivery of high speed data in next-generation networks like 5G, with the lowest cost per GB.
Vodafone is leading the fibre journey in India with a multipronged approach. We have already built a huge network of nearly 200,000 km of fibre network across the country. Our major cities are interconnected in more than four directions to ensure sufficient resiliency. The fibre routes are built with high cable capacities (48 core to 244 core) to cater to future demand. Further, we are working towards connecting more and more buildings on fibre through our broadband arm. Vodafone is also collaborating with other operators to enhance its reach. The company has built a centralised operations centre for the continuous monitoring of the fibre network with 24×7 support by the field team. We are also in the process of deploying the world’s largest brownfield pan-Indian 200G optical network. Vodafone has set up robust fibre infrastructure to be a part of the Digital India movement and bring its world-class services to customers.
What is your data offloading strategy? What are the various solutions being used for better indoor coverage?
Investments based on customer profiles (hotspot investments where high net worth individuals are located) rather than everywhere will help realise capex benefits. Currently, Vodafone is offering Wi-Fi services at 350 hotspots across eight circles to offload data traffic in these locations. In addition, initiatives like M-MIMO trials are providing good capacity and quality gains. This will help Vodafone India in realising much better spectral efficiency. Trials also show that M-MIMO is providing better indoor performance. Vodafone has plans to deploy significant outdoor small cells for hotspot capacity and coverage requirements.
What is your view on market-readiness for 5G deployments in India?
How 5G is architected and deployed will depend upon how the network is used. For example, video traffic is expected to grow substantially, making it necessary to provide higher speeds for applications such as video streaming, videoconferencing and virtual reality. To achieve this type of performance, the network will likely need significant small cell coverage and will take advantage of higher bandwidth spectrum. Further, many envision 5G as the key network for IoT. In order to support a large number of devices, many of which require longer battery life, 5G networks will have to be extremely efficient in their low-bandwidth transmissions and have enhanced coverage. Keeping this in mind, Vodafone is working towards incorporating the 5G principles into 4G, for example, M-MIMO. At present M-MIMO has been deployed in Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Delhi, and we are looking at expanding its footprint to other cities.
“Vodafone India has been pushing the frontiers of technology by embedding the key 5G principles in its state-of the-art 4G+ deployments
As the technology head of a leading telecom player, what challenges do you foresee for the company and the industry at large?
I envisage that the industry will move towards automation and cloud architecture (SDN and network function virtualisation [NFV]) with the challenge of improving the customer experience and maintaining a lower cost of operations. In addition, there has to be greater emphasis on workers’ skill upgradation, which is the key for the delivery of services.
Which are the three technology trends that you believe will shape the future of telecom?
The three technology trends would be:
- Distributed cloud, NFV and SDN as enablers for delivering 5G-based requirements: Combining distributed cloud technology with virtualised network functions will make it easier for operators to optimise, manage and maintain networks. With NFV, operators will be able to program their networks in real time and introduce new services quickly, based on service needs rather than routing configuration. Meanwhile, SDN will be crucial for operators to carve virtual “sub-networks” or slices that can then be used for bigger bandwidth applications such as video and lower-bandwidth applications such as smart watches.
- MEC and IoT: With the arrival of IoT and the predicted surge in the number of connected devices, multi-access edge computing (MEC) has become increasingly important. MEC is a network architecture that brings real-time, high-bandwidth and low-latency access to the edge of the network.
- Zero-touch network and service management (automation): As we move ahead, networks need to become more programmable and software driven using technologies such as NFV, SDN and MEC. The resultant increase in network complexity makes automation a necessity.