As the world stands on the cusp of a 5G revolution, fibre is emerging as the most suitable medium to make networks smarter. The fact that fibre-based networks are capable of delivering almost unlimited bandwidth makes them ideal for 5G services. Further, fibre can play a key role in building robust backhaul capabilities for 5G networks. Recognising this need, the government has announced its aim to increase India’s fibre backbone from 1.5 million km at present to 2.5 million km by 2022 to support the roll-out of 5G services. However, it is imperative to remove the bottlenecks in the roll-out of fibre infrastructure to accelerate the level of fiberisation in the country.

Role of fibre in 5G

5G will be driven by fibre-only technology. As we move towards 5G, the network architecture will evolve faster and require massive technical and infrastructure upgrade. It is anticipated that the industry will require an additional investment (over and above the spectrum spend) of over $60 billion to set up the 5G infrastructure. A huge part of this investment will be undertaken to strengthen the country’s fibre network.

To make commercial 5G a reality in India, fibre-based backhaul support will be needed. 5G networks will require high capacity backhaul, supported by large-scale (almost 100 per cent) site fiberisation. A strong fibre backbone not only serves as an alternative technology but also supports wireless access. Further, fibre-based backhaul can offer unlimited capacity and low latency that are the prerequisites for 5G applications such as 4K video. It is also important to fiberise small- and macro-cell sites so as to upgrade them to 5G in the coming years. Notably, copper and wireless backhaul options cannot be scaled to cater to the large amount of backhaul traffic that will be generated by 5G networks. Further, 5G deployment will require a multifold increase in small cells with each small cell connected through fibre backhaul.

Besides backhaul, with the evolving network architecture, the provisioning of fibre fronthaul will play a key role in 5G network deployment. With the growth in cloud services, we are also witnessing the mushrooming of data centres in India. As this market expands rapidly, fibre will be critical for driving high speed and low-latency requirements within data centres and between different data centres.

Industry initiatives

In a bid to hasten 5G commercialisation, the government, operators as well as independent fibre companies are speeding up fibre deployments. On the back of such efforts, optic fibre cable (OFC) coverage across the country doubled from 700,000 km in May 2014 to 1.4 million km in May 2018. Government initiatives such as BharatNet are driving fibre roll-out in the country. From 358 km of optic fibre in 2014, India now has close to 305,824 km of OFC in place under the BharatNet project. Among operators, Reliance Jio has already fiberised 70 per cent of its towers in Delhi. In fact, 50-60 per cent of its sites leased from other operators have also been fiberised. Vodafone Idea has significantly expanded its fibre network, which now spans around 233,000 km. Bharti Airtel added around 31,357 route km of fibre between the quarter ended September 2017 and the quarter ended September 2018.

Fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), which offers immense opportunities, is another key factor driving fibre roll-outs by operators. Jio has begun registrations for its Jio GigaFiber services and has attracted customer interest across 1,400 cities. The operator is now connecting homes with fibre based on requests received. Further, Airtel has announced plans to invest a significant part of its Rs 240 billion capex guidance during fiscal year 2019 to expand its wired broadband network from 89 cities at present to at least 100. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has launched its FTTH service, Bharat Fiber, and is upgrading its FTTH network across 100 cities. Going forward, India Ratings and Research expects operators to invest around Rs 700 billion during 2019-20. Much of this will be spent on fibre roll-outs.

Current status

While stakeholders have been actively working towards expanding fibre coverage in the country, the growth in fibre networks has been slow. Despite significant investments, fibre coverage stands at only 25-30 per cent. According to ICRA, India’s per capita fibre coverage stands at a meagre 0.09 fibre km as against the 0.87 fibre km for China and 1.3 fibre km for Japan and the US. The US has deployed over 400 million km of fibre for one-third the size of our population and China has deployed 1 billion km while in India we have deployed only 100 million km. Further, India deploys only 15 million km of fibre per year, whereas China adds about 150 million km. Also, the quantum of fibre laid underground in India is less than 7 per cent of that in the US and about 10 per cent of that in China. India has a lot of catching up to do in terms of the total fibre deployed to population ratio. The total fibre deployed to population ratio of India is 1x, far behind comparable regimes such as the US and China, where the fibre deployment ratio stands at 14x and 9x respectively. We are at least four to five years behind China in terms of last-mile connectivity. Meanwhile, out of the total 500,000 towers in India, only 22 per cent are fiberised as against 75-80 per cent of total towers in the US, China and Japan. The level of fiberisation has to reach 80-85 per cent by 2022 to support 5G and its enabling technologies such as machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence. Industry estimates suggest that approximately one in two sites in India will need fiberisation in the next three years. In terms of FTTH, fibre has passed around 4 million homes out of the total 250 million households. The industry therefore needs to undertake massive fibre deployment to usher in 5G.

Policy impetus

Recognising that the country needs to bridge a huge gap in terms of fibre deployments to catch the 5G bus, the government has been undertaking numerous policy initiatives. Key among these is the recently approved National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 that aims to enhance fibre coverage to support 5G rollout. The policy focuses on broadband access for all, 5G roll-out, the provision of Wi-Fi hotspots, the expansion of 4G, tower fiberisation, IoT and M2M. It emphasises the creation of a national fibre authority, thus clearly highlighting the importance of fibre expansion. The key features of the policy enabling faster fibre connectivity are:

  • Facilitation of a fibre-to-the-tower programme that will enable fiberisation of at least 60 per cent base stations.
  • Incentivising and promoting fibre connectivity for all new constructions.
  • Encouraging investment in broadband infrastructure through fiscal and tax incentives.

According to the policy, telecom optic fibre cable will be accorded the status of a public utility. Further, common service ducts and utility corridors will be established in all new cities and highway road projects to enable fibre roll-out. The policy also calls for a collaborative institutional mechanism between the centre, the states and local bodies for a common right-of-way (RoW), cost and timeline standardisation, as well as faster approvals for fibre roll-out.

The way ahead

Till date, fibre deployments in India have been slow owing to a number of factors including difficulties in obtaining RoW permissions, high RoW charges ranging from Rs 0.1 million to Rs 5 million per km, high cost of customer premises equipment and optical line terminal, and faulty interpretation of RoW rules by different state and local municipal bodies resulting in cost variances and delays in fibre roll-out.

However, as India enters the 5G era, it is imperative for the country to scale up its fibre networks to roll out 5G in line with global timelines. This calls for a collaborative approach among key industry stakeholders including operators, government and towercos. From macro cells and small cells to data centres that deliver apps and services, it is essential that fibre connects all non-wireless aspects of the network for 5G to reach its full potential. Net, net, enhanced fibre connectivity could be a game changer for India in its attempt to be at the forefront of 5G roll-outs.