Public utilities are playing an active role in the optic fibre cable (OFC) market. Over the years, they have developed a robust fibre footprint, which is being monetised to offer enterprise communication services and is being leveraged by telcos and other players to boost connectivity. At a recent tele.net conference, experts from Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (Powergrid), the RailTel Corporation of India and GailTel talked about their current OFC infrastructure, key projects and opportunities…
What is your current network strength and what are your plans for the next few years?
Currently, we have total approximately 11,000 km of fibre routes, of which 9,000 km fibre is along the gas pipelines and remaining 2,000 km along the highways. We are laying an additional about 8,000 km of fibre in new and upcoming pipeline routes. Of this, 4,000 km is already under commissioning and will be operational soon. We would require approximately 4,000 km of fibre, ducts and other associated components on new and upcoming pipeline routes over the next two to three years. Further, the newly deployed fibre alongside Vijaipur (Madhya Pradesh)-Phulpur-Varanasi-Gorakhpur is available to telecom service providers (TSPs) to be utilised. In terms of technology and capacity, we are considering moving towards MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) technology and to 10 Gbps capacity (from 2.5 Gbps). MPLS-TP along the pipeline enroute Vadodara-Mumbai is under implementation.
We have now started using the pipeline intrusion detection system, which has helped us to enhance our operations immensely. For instance, we get an alarm when a fibre cut is likely to happen and we are able to prevent it. Over 50 such cuts have been prevented with the help of this system.
As far as GAIL’s CGD (city gas distribution) OFC network is concerned, we have covered areas such as Ranchi, Jamshedpur, Patna, Cuttak, Bubaneshwar and Kolkata, where we have decided to lay duct/fibre at present, but might eventually venture into the FTTH (fibre-to-the home) business also.
Our fibre is laid along the railway track, which has a length of about 66,000 rkm. At present, we have around 56,000 km of fibre network, which runs along all the major cities. On the network side, we have a dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) network of 10G and we plan to take this up to 100-200G with 40 channels. Bids for this have already been invited. We are serving Indian Railways (IR) on our OFC network at present. As part of this, we are providing Wi-Fi services and video surveillance for passenger safety and also engaging in other services. Further, we are providing services for railway communications at stations. RailTel is having its own broadband named “railwire”. Railwire is providing internet services to cities, schools, villages and enterprise costumer and at present we have around 150,000 customers under this brand.
At POWERGRID, we have around 164,000 km of transmission lines. Of this, where optical ground wire (OPGW) or ADSS is installed, is around 100,000 km. Further, around 50,000 km more is under planning. This fibre network is being installed mainly for grid monitoring, operations and control. All the data of sub-stations, power stations and transmission lines are brought to our regional load dispatch centres (RLDCs), National load dispatch centre (NLDC) and back-up NLDC. Further, POWERGRID has also established National Transmission Asset Management Centre (NTAMC), where all the data of around 240 sub stations and associated transmission lines across the country are brought through secured MPLS VPN network. POWERGRID exercises monitoring and control of all sub-stations’ operations remotely from NTMAC. All these activities are supported by our most reliable optical fibre network.
POWERGRID Telecom presently has around 67,000 km of optical fibre network. Of this, around 40,000 km is from the POWERGRID’s optical network and the rest has been taken on lease from various IP-1 players.
In terms of technology, POWERGRID Telecom business started with 2.5 G DWDM systems around 15 years back and have moved to 10 G and 100 G DWDMs. Further, our 200 G DWDM system is under implementation.
Are there any new tenders that are likely to come up?
Regarding the CCTV surveillance system, we have upgraded our entire pipeline and installed about 2,000 CCTV cameras. For maintenance purpose, tendering for procurement of 100-150 km fibre ducts is under progress.
We have around 8,000 km OFC work sanctioned, of which work for 3,000 km of fibre has already started. The remaining 5,000 km is going to be completed in near future.
On the network side, we have already invited tenders for 100G and 200G network. We are also moving our MPLS network along WDM, the tender for which will be floated soon.
Another tender for the video surveillance system (VSS) has been floated. We invited tenders for VSS deployment in around 6,000 coaches at 5,000 stations. These tenders are under evaluation.
Regarding optic cable, work is in progress for around 44,000 km and tenders have been published for another 8,000 km. POWERGRID does not has any major new optical fibre cable-related tender as of now. Regarding equipment, a tender worth Rs 350 million has been floated for MPLS-TP equipment. We may come up with another tender for a higher capacity equipment in the next six months.
What has been your implementation experience for the BharatNet project?
We were not involved with the BharatNet project.
We were awarded the work for Gujarat and north-eastern states under the BharatNet project Phase I. We have just completed our work in Gujarat, and in the north-eastern states work has been held up due to some reasons. Our work under Phase I is almost complete and we are in the process of handing over to Bharat Broadband Network Limited.
We have been involved in the implementation of BharatNet since the beginning of the project. Under Phase I, we were given four states for implementation – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana (which were a single state at that time), Odisha, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh. Under Phase I we have completed most of the work and for Phase II, we are yet to receive any implementation requirements.
Are you leasing out your OFC capacity? What are your revenues at present and how do you see them growing, going forward?
Yes, we are leasing out spare fibre infrastructure to TSPs. Currently, our revenues stand at around Rs 40 million from leasing of fibre infrastructure. We have recently signed a few agreements with different TSPs. One such agreement worth Rs 1.2 billion is for leasing out the fibre infrastructure in different pipeline routes. It is a long-term agreement. There are a few more proposals in the pipeline, which are yet to be approved.
We have decided not to venture into the bandwidth business after the expiry of the IP-II licence. We will go ahead with business under only IP-1 registration and use it for leasing dark fibre and related infrastructure.
At present we are serving mainly banks, DRDO, Employees Provident Fund Organisation, Indian coast guard and no. of other private and government institutions. On the private side, there are a few banks and ecommerce players such as Amazon.
We are also providing tele-presence services across railways. All new trains are inaugurated by these services. We are now offering this service to the government as well. The provisioning of telepresence services is not done on the basis of an opex model, but is based on the capex model. Rent is being charged on a monthly basis.
During financial year 2019-20, we had a turnover of Rs 12.2 billion and our target is to touch Rs 15 billion in 2020-21. Over the next five years, we plan to reach at least Rs 60 billion-Rs 70 billion.
In the past 15 years, the company has reached Rs 7.5 billion in overall revenues, as reported last year. On the telecom side, our main focus is the sale of bandwidth – P2P, P2M VPN and internet services.. Besides, another product that we have available for TSPs is the tower business. We can offer towers for installing antennas where power is provided from that same tower using induction technology, instead of requiring power from a distribution line. We believe this would be good a proposition for TSPs, especially when installing their BTS sites in remote areas. If they wish to install antennas, they can use our towers and we can even provide bandwidth on our OPGW network running through our transmission lines. A lot of discussion is going on regarding this. Over the next five years, we want to take our revenues from around Rs 8 billion to Rs 15 billion.
What are some of the issues and challenges faced by you?
Regarding equipment procurement, we have been mandated to depend on Indian vendors only and that poses a challenge. Another issue is regarding the leasing out of dark fibre. Our pipeline crosses through rural areas, where the availability of power is a big issue. The authority must work on improving power availability in remote areas.
Even though we exercise exclusive right of way (RoW) along the railway tracks, in cities, RoW is a big challenge. The RoW issue is encountered mostly in the last mile and not on the railway track. As far as the network is concerned, procurement of equipment has become a challenge after the government has mandated to buy only from local providers and manufacturers. However, we are sure to overcome this problem.
The main challenge is in the procurement of telecom equipment. Recent government guidelines mandate us to buy such equipment only from local suppliers, where local content requirement is being met. Currently, there are very limited local manufacturers/local suppliers operating in this space. If we wish to buy next generation equipment to create very high capacity bandwidth, it becomes extremely challenging to procure such equipment locally.
Are you facing any ageing issues with OFC?
Internally, we have defined the life of our cable as around 20 years and we are now considering replacement wherever the cable has aged.
We have defined a cable’s life as 25 years. Generally, we do not encounter any problem, but there may be some specific issues for fibre that is already 20 years old. Particularly in OPGW, we are not finding any problems. However, in the the wrap around cable installed on two lines, we have faced problems such as degradation of the outer jacket due to lightening voltage or induction voltage. Hence, we are now replacing that with OPGW.
What has been the impact of Covid-19 on your operations?
We have not faced any challenge as such, as executives have been divided into teams to work from home and offices on alternate days or weekly as per requirement. Regarding maintenance, initially, there was some problem in Mumbai due to the lockdown, but everything has been resolved now. We are working in full capacity.
Like most other organisations, we have also adopted a work-from-home model. We recently implemented e-Office for Indian Railways and all our work is going on smoothly. That said, we are facing problems on the tender side. We had invited several tenders for OFC and vendor equipment. But since many private offices were shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they could not submit tenders on time. We have extended the dates as per their request and now gradually things are falling back into place.
Interestingly, our service level agreements have improved as there are fewer fibre cuts. These cuts mainly happened due to railways’ day-to-day activity having been slow for some time during the lockdown.
There was an initial setback when Covid-19 started. But now, our employees are working from home and we are collaborating virtually through various tools. However, our Network Operation Centre (NOC) run on 24X7 basis. As far as our office work is concerned, nothing has stopped. However, site implementation was halted everywhere. It got delayed by around one month, but now that the lockdown has been lifted, site activity has been resumed. An additional benefit was that our fibre cuts reduced drastically since not much activity was happening at sites. Further, since the offices that were buying bandwidth from us remained closed, the number of customer complaints also reduced.