Over the past few years, India has experienced a massive surge in indoor voice and data consumption. According to the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association, almost 85 per cent data traffic and 70 per cent voice traffic is now generated indoors. In line with these changing market needs, telcos and towercos have been scaling up the deployment of in-building solutions (IBS). Further, industry stakeholders are putting greater emphasis on sharing in-building infrastructure to save opex and capex, as well as to avoid the duplication of infrastructure deployment. Going forward, the increasing data traffic on account of 4G and the emergence of 5G are expected to create opportunities for passive and active infrastructure sharing, and planned growth of 5,000-10,000 shared IBS sites every year.

Market drivers for IBS

  • Increased use of data services: Traditionally, mobile services were provided mainly by installing macrocells on mobile towers. However, with the increasing usage of data services, these macro cells, at times, are not adequate to provide seamless connectivity inside buildings. By offloading traffic from macrocell networks, IBS ensure a high quality of service with fewer call drops. Solutions such as small cells and distributed antenna systems (DAS) help in providing good coverage inside buildings and allay the perceived risks from relatively higher radiating macrosites. In fact, the use of DAS eliminates the need for installing multiple antennas in a building. These solutions are transparent from a radio frequency perspective and vendor-agnostic in terms of the radio access network (RAN). Further, a single passive DAS solution can be shared by multiple telecom service providers (TSPs) using different technologies and frequency bands.
  • Making cities smarter: The central government’s ambitious Smart Cities Mission is another key driver that is encouraging the adoption of IBS. Since the success of the mission relies on the underlying telecommunications infrastructure, the cities identified under this programme should be mandated to install common infrastructure inside buildings to enable seamless connectivity. To this end, certain smart cities have started collaborating with infrastructure providers to scale up the deployment of IBS. Going forward, IBS should be included as one of the key parameters in the selection of smart cities for granting financial assistance.

Role of the regulator

Recognising the role that IBS can play in the rapidly evolving digital ecosystem, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has been working on a comprehensive policy and regulatory framework. In 2017, the regulator released a set of recommendations on the issue that included barring TSPs from entering into exclusive agreements with building owners; promoting the sharing of IBS; mandating TSPs to share in-building infrastructure with other TSPs in public places such as airports, hotels, multiplexes, commercial and residential complexes; and developing a time-bound system for sharing in-building infrastructure. The sharing of IBS will significantly reduce the total cost of ownership, since both the cost of investment and maintenance will be shared among several TSPs.

In order to continue encouraging infrastructure sharing, TRAI recently released a consultation paper on enhancing the role of IP-1s to include the provisioning of common or shareable active infrastructure such as nodes and RAN. Allowing active sharing of IBS through IP-1s would improve broadband coverage, capacity and user experience inside buildings. TRAI has also sought industry views on whether IP-1s should be allowed to own, establish and provide wired access networks and in-building solutions, in line with global developments. The move, if formalised, would prove to be a win-win for both telcos and IP-1s.

Policy scenario

The proliferation of in-building connectivity has become a key component of government policies. The National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 proposes to make the installation of telecom infrastructure and associated cabling and in-building solutions mandatory in all commercial, residential and official spaces by amending the National Building Code of India with the help of the Bureau of Indian Standards.

The government has been taking a number of steps for promoting the sharing of in-building infrastructure, in line with TRAI recommendations. In October 2019, the Digital Communications Commission (DCC) approved in-building access by TSPs, thereby allowing them to share infrastructure and, in the process, curbing TSPs’ monopoly in installing infrastructure through exclusive contracts.

In November 2019, the Department of Telecommunications issued an advisory to encourage all TSPs to share their in-building infrastructure such as systems, optical fibre, other cables, ducts and boosters on government premises and other public places such as airports, railway stations, bus terminals and hospitals.

Rising uptake of IBS

The government’s policy and regulatory push coupled with the ever-expanding data usage has propelled telcos to scale up the deployment of IBS. For instance, Samsung Networks is undertaking large-scale deployment of small cells for Reliance Jio to improve indoor coverage. The move will help increase Jio’s network coverage to 99 per cent. Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea are also focusing on enhancing indoor coverage and network quality through small cell deployments. In fact, Vodafone Idea has installed over 1,900 indoor coverage solutions for high-rise buildings and commercial places. Further, operators are focusing on offloading their data traffics on Wi-Fi networks.

IBS – A new business opportunity for towercos

The increasing thrust on IBS has provided numerous opportunities for towercos. For instance, the small cell opportunity has come as a shot in the arm for the beleaguered tower industry, which has been reeling under tenancy losses due to recent consolidation in the telecom sector. Industry experts feel that after deploying small cells, towercos can lease them out to operators. This could be a win-win situation for both operators and towercos as besides adding to the revenues of towercos, small cells would help operators significantly reduce their capital expenditure.

Further, telecom infrastructure providers have started moving outside the conventional businesses and are rolling out digital infrastructure such as DAS and Wi-Fi for enhancing indoor network coverage and improving their revenues. For instance, Smartx Services Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bharti Infratel, has deployed IBS across airports, hotels and other buildings. It has also set up Wi-Fi hotspots across the country. Moreover, towercos have started playing a bigger role in connecting towers and buildings with fibre.

Towercos have adopted the neutral-host model for providing IBS such as Wi-Fi, small cell and DAS. Under this model, a towerco pays for the system set-up and leases the access rights to operators. The company offers end-to-end solutions, including obtaining right of way  for buildings, and planning, deployment and maintenance of the telecom infrastructure.

Need of the hour

While IBS is slowly gaining traction in the industry, there is still a long way to go. On a global scale, the level of IBS deployment in India is minimal. Industry estimates suggest that the current level of IBS deployment in the country is at a mere 5 per cent. Since telcos are cash-strapped and unable to undertake network modernisation initiatives at the scale needed, there is an urgent requirement to allow IP-1s to own IBS to help them cater to the ever-increasing data demand. The government needs to play a proactive role in this regard. Another area that requires immediate attention is the cumbersome approval process for installing IBS such as Wi-Fi and small cells in public places. Moreover, the National Building Code should be amended to encourage the deployment of shareable in-building infrastructure. Timely action to resolve these key issues would go a long way in ensuring seamless indoor connectivity.

By Kuhu Singh Abbhi