Of late, providing better last-mile connectivity to consumers has emerged as one of the key challenges facing  operators in the Indian telecommunications sector. As we step into the digital age, consumers’ demand for better speeds will grow even further.

There is huge capacity available or can be made available in the backbone network. However, the real challenge is to get the site/enterprise points of presence (PoP) traffic to the highway. The data traffic that gets generated at the hub/enterprise PoP is huge and extremely critical. As such, it requires a network with high capacity and reliability. This calls for deployment of new solutions such as small cells and optic fibre cable (OFC) which can be used for site densification. A look at key demand drivers of last-mile connectivity, deployment models, challenges and the way forward…

Demand drivers for last-mile connectivity

Need for OFC: Among the various factors driving the demand for last-mile connectivity is the need to provide better speed and capacity to consumers. At present, 1G or more capacity per site is required to support the current volume and velocity of data traffic. Nearly 40 per cent of the current sites need to be fiberised in order to sustain this kind of capacity. The emergence of 5G will entail provision of 10-20G kind of capacities per site along with ultra-low latency. In such a scenario, E-band and microwave solutions can serve as a stopgap arrangement but they cannot be permanent solutions. Another big driver of last-mile connectivity is the enterprise and business space. Efficient business operations require good high speed internet services. Further, as fixed and mobile services are becoming increasingly converged, the need to deliver fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) or fibre-to-anything (FTTX) is becoming even more apparent.

Growth path

The National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 has set ambitious targets of achieving universal broadband connectivity with 50 mbps speeds, reaching 50 per cent households with fixed broadband access and achieving 65 per cent unique mobile subscriber density by 2022. The policy envisages 5 billion connected devices and 10 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2022. If these goals are to be achieved, the government has to adopt a fibre-first approach and take fibre to homes, enterprises and institutions. Tower fiberisation has to be increased to 60 per cent from the current 20-25 per cent. This will require doubling of the current fibre route km laid. As such, the amount of fibre rolled out in the past two decades needs to be deployed in the next two to three years.

Deployment models

Operators can adopt the traditional approach of building their respective last-mile networks but this model is laden with several inherent flaws, which will render it inefficient in the long run. Individual last-mile network will mean different last mile for different services. Further, it will create the problem of limited leasing and leasing based on some kind of barter. Leasing at times gets impacted due to business competition under such a model. All in all, it will result in limited utilisation of potential. Thus, if 60 per cent tower fiberisation is to be achieved by 2022, it is necessary that operators adopt a shared infrastructure approach. Towercos or independent companies can play an important role in building the last-mile network, which can then be leased out to operators on a non-discriminatory basis. This will result in overall efficiency in capex and opex due to multitenancy.

Key challenges

One of the most pressing issues is the non-uniform implementation of the Right of Way [RoW] Rules, 2016 which has led to an increase in the overall project cost and caused unnecessary delays in getting approvals. Further, the rising cost of fibre and its accessories needs to be controlled and subsidised to enable large-scale fibre deployment.

The way forward

In order to effectively address these challenges, it is necessary that the concerned authorities play the role of a facilitator and forge collaborations wherever needed. They should be a part of the stakeholders’ group and leverage the benefit of fiberisation and digitalisation. There is an immediate need to create a national fibre authority (NFA) to ensure the rationalisation of RoW costs and reduce approval timelines. Also, the government should encourage fibre service providers who can play the role of a neutral hosts and offer fibre to telecom operators on a non-discriminatory basis. There is a need to promote the shared infrastructure approach.

At present, India is far behind its global counterparts such as China and the US in terms of site fiberisation. However, pan-Indian deployment of 4G and the emergence of 5G will provide a great opportunity to catch up. Further, government programmes such as the Smart Cities Mission and Digital India can complement the growth of fiberisation in India. s

Based on a presentation by Subrata Sen, Head, Fiber, Transport and Smart City Solution, Bharti Infratel Limited