Girish Gupta, Head, India Business Development, STL

With over a billion mobile phone co­n­nections and a teledensity of arou­nd 86 per cent, India is ranked am­ong the largest telecom markets in the world. A billion eager consumers across the country have been swayed by the visi­on of 5G in India and its life-changing promises: ultra-fast connectivity with no latency, robust internet connectivity for everyone and applications such as internet of things (IoT), smart cars, smart industries, artificial in­telligence and robotics. How­ever, 5G net­works are not just a game of deploying high frequency spectrum for telcos. A lot more needs to be done to en­sure that 5G sees success in India – most prominently, fibe­risation.

Challenges to fiberisation faced in India

Considering the data usage and proliferation trends, the importance of a robust network cannot be overstated. The level of fiberisation in data networks is a key factor in high performing networks and there is a pressing need for fast and cost-optimised roll-outs at this juncture. But large-scale fiberisation projects are not easy to execute because of:

  • The multilayered and complex right-of-way (RoW) process
  • Improper route surveys
  • Unskilled manpower
  • Lack of proper planning
  • Legacy (largely manual) field operations

Moreover, the market is largely driven by unorganised players and the need for superfast roll-outs cannot be met until fi­bre roll-outs as a whole are reimagined. The number of network endpoints will sur­ge due to increasing fibre-to-the-x penetration, 5G and IoT. All this will require deep fiberisation and high densification of the network. These fibre deployment challen­g­es surely merit a new approach for achieving large-scale fiberisation. We need to have technology-enabled fibre roll-outs. Th­­i­nk about drones being used for route surveys and robotic technologies for the ac­tual laying of fibre. Considering that we are sitting at the cusp of massive fiberisati­on, the time is apt for rethinking fibre roll-outs.

Enhancing fiberisation

Fibre is perhaps the most scalable, secure and cost-effective option for transmitting large volumes of data, uninterrupted, for years. With data consumption in India poised to reach 109 million TB in 2022, faster fiberisation is the need of the hour. Therefore, in the next one year we can expect an accelerated rate of fiberisation to connect rural India to the upcoming 5G services. As per the National Broadband Mission, we can expect around 2 million km of optical fibre to be installed countrywide, covering 70 per cent of the nation’s towers by 2024.

Given the present spike in data traffic, telecom businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the need to expand the ca­pacity of their existing networks. While cu­rrent capacity per tower site is around 1 Gbps (for 2G/3G/4G services), the capa­city requirements per site may increase to 10-20 Gbps if 5G is implemented. This necessitates a significant shift in the technologies used at these towers. 5G will go beyond traditional telecom and catalyse the digital transformation of a variety of different in­dustry verticals, besides enabling enhanced mo­bile broadband for person-to-person app­li­cations, IoT and massive machine-to-ma­chine communications.

Optical fibre will be used to connect 600,000 Indian communities, according to the Indian government. Various program­mes and technologies have connected more than 150,000 gram panchayats in the last decade alone.

Initiatives such as BharatNet have effectively constructed and deployed robust infrastructure, which necessitates the use of fibre at the heart of connecting solutions.

Increased agricultural output, improv­ed healthcare access, and, most crucially, education for all can be achieved by developing digital infrastructure and literacy at urban and rural levels. Faster fiberisation can connect the remotest areas of India, guaranteeing that no citizen or community is left behind in this digital era. Simul­taneously, such efforts enable the rural po­pu­lation to be skilled and educated, inc­rea­sing their employability and supporting local enterprises.

Fiberisation will make the “Digital India” dream come true

When compared to 4G, 5G’s low latency, high data speed and capacity to support up to 100 times the number of connected de­vices per area make it a massive gamble for businesses and many segments of society. The government should take the following steps to en­sure faster fiberisation:

  • Policymakers must recognise the importance of accelerating fibre roll-out th­rou­gh investments and incentives, in­c­lu­ding private sector participation.
  • The government should create high-po­w­ered governing/advisory groups that can set the direction for fibre roll-out. Re­­­l­evant ministries, provinces and leading industry CEOs can provide advice to su­pport the expansion and re­mo­ve bottlenecks.
  • Strong coordination between the government and the private sector can help India’s digital progress by speeding up the delivery of vital infrastructure. The success of 5G in India will be determin­ed by the fiberisation of towers, a clear RoW policy, acceptable spectrum pricing, and sufficient availability.

The potential of 5G in India is truly ga­me changing. Once implemented, it would be able to support up to 1 million connected devices per square km, compared to just 2,000 per square km under 4G long term evolution. In fact, by 2035, the cumulative impact of 5G on the Indian eco­nomy could touch the $1 trillion mark.