Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (Powergrid) established its telecom subsidiary Powertel in 2001 with a view to utilise the spare telecommunication capacity of its unified load despatch centres and leverage its countrywide power transmission network. Power­tel has made steady progress since then and is now a leading provider of low-cost telecommunication services and infrastructure, with a large portfolio of tower and optic fibre cable (OFC) assets across the country.

Powertel is the only utility in the country with pan-Indian overhead optic fibre on its extra high voltage power transmission network. It is also one of the few telecom players with a marked presence in the remote areas of the Northeast and Jammu & Kashmir. The company has an edge over other telecom operators in terms of readily available right of way (RoW) for the installation of cables and limited challenges in the form of forest clearances, etc.

Current network

Powertel currently has 35,563 km of OFC network across India, of which 3,322 km was added during 2015-16. Besides, the company has 595 points of presence in the country. It has used the optic ground wire (OPGW) technology to roll out its fibre network on a live-line environment on the existing transmission lines and synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH)-based transmission equipment for building backbone communication systems. One of the key reasons for using this configuration is that fibre cable remains stable, robust and protected against rodents, and recurrent road digging. Moreover, the OPGW configuration enables faster roll-out of fibre cable because it does not require RoW and forest clearances. Further, OPGW cable deployment, which is suitable for 132 kV transmission lines, is carried out through live-line stringing, without interrupting the power flow through the transmission line.

According to a presentation by H.H. Sharan, assistant general manager, load despatch and communication, Powergrid at tele.net’s conference on OFC Networks in India, Powertel has faced several challenges in deploying OPGW networks owing to limited live-line OPGW installation resources as the technology requires specialised tools and trained manpower. Indigenous suppliers of OPGW hardware and OPGW accessories such as joint boxes and fibre optic distribution panels are limited. In addition, there is lack of OPGW testing facilities in India.

Other overhead configurations adopted by the company are wrap-around overhead, where OFC is wrapped around the ground wire, and all dielectric self-­supporting (ADSS), where the fibre cable is strung separately on transmission towers as conductors. The ADSS configuration is suitable for transmission lines of up to 220 kV. Like OPGW, the ADSS cable configuration can be installed without disrupting power flow and is easy to commission, maintain and expand.

Over the years, Powertel’s client base has increased and the company currently serves over 270 key customer segments. Some of these are government agencies and public sector utilities such as the National Informatics Centre, the Indian Army, the Intelligence Bureau and telecom operators.

Recent initiatives

Powertel has ventured into multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) services as a value addition to its SDH/dense wavelength division multiplexing-based point-to-point telecom network. The company provides connectivity to its enterprise customers through MPLS cloud. It provides both Layer 2 and Layer 3 virtual private networks (VPNs) with port capacities ranging from 2 Mbps to 10 Gbps. In addition, it provides reliable internet connectivity solutions over its internet cloud platform with capacities ranging from 2 Mbps to 1 Gbps. Powertel has partnered with global content providers for providing internet protocol (IP) transit services to internet service providers (ISPs). The IP transit service reduces cost and enhances the service quality of hosted content for ISPs, and in turn enables them to offer better internet services at lower price to their users. The company has also signed MPLS VPN/internet deals with several domestic customers.

To improve the operational efficiency of transmission lines and substations, Powertel has set up state-of-the-art computerised control centres – the National Transmission Asset Management Centre (NTAMC) and the Regional Transmission Asset Management Centre (RTAMC) – for enabling remote operations, and monitoring and control of Powergrid’s transmission network. Powergrid operates substations from the NTAMC, while the RTAMC coordinates substation maintenance and acts as a backup to NTAMC’s. Meanwhile, a maintenance service hub has also been established for carrying out maintenance work at the substations in its vicinity. The substations and control centres are connected through Powertel’s OFC network. The NTAMC helps ensure greater coordin­ation in interregional power flow, quicker collection and evaluation of data from substations, and lower opex.

Further, the company has set up an enterprise resource planning system, integrating the group’s offices and substations across geographically different regions. Powertel uses a high speed backhaul network to ensure reliable and secure connectivity to these regions.

Implementation status of Powertel’s government projects

Powertel is the key implementing agency of two major telecom government projects – the National Knowledge Network (NKN) and the BharatNet project. The Rs 60 ­billion NKN project is a multi-gigabit, pan-Indian network that will provide a unified high speed network backbone to over 1,500 educational, government, agricultural, health­care and research institutions, with connectivity up to the district level. As the project’s service partner, Powertel will provide core/distribution links with a bandwidth capacity of 10 Gbps/2.5 Gbps and EDGE links of 1 Gbps/100 Mbps. Power­grid’s revenue share in the project is Rs 9 billion, which is to be realised over a period of 10 years. As of end-March 2016, 33 links of 10 Gbps each, 105 links of 1 Gbps/100 Mbps and 440 links of 100 Mpbs/1 Gbps have been provisioned.

Meanwhile, the BharatNet project aims to connect around 250,000 gram pan­­­­chayats (GPs) through an OFC ­network. It aims to provide 100 Mbps bandwidth at each GP, along with the establishment of a high capacity network management system and a network operation centre. The project is being implemented by Powergrid, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited and RailTel Corporation of India Limited. Powergrid has been specifically entrusted with the task of developing and maintaining the project in Telangana, Himachal Pradesh, Jhar­khand and Odi­sha. The company has already awarded contracts for the supply of duct and accessories along with trenching and laying work. As of end-March 2016, 4,120 GPs have been connected th­rou­­gh incremental fibre out of which acceptance testing for 1,940 GPs has been completed. Further, 917 GPs have been connected end to end.

International connectivity

Powertel offers access to its domestic infrastructure for facilitating  connectivity to neighbouring countries for international long distance operators. As of now, the company has established connectivity to Bhutan over OPGW on full re­dun­dancy on two different routes, na­me­ly, the Bon­gaingaon (India)-Galepu (Bhutan) 50 km link and Siliguri (India)-Malbase (Bhutan) 98 km link. The company has also been expanding OPGW networks to Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangla­desh, and exploring telecom consultancy opportunities in other international markets as well. Con­nec­ti­vity to Sri Lanka will be achie­ved through undersea cables and OPGW, while that to Bangladesh and Nepal would be provided through Power­grid’s power transmission network.

Future expansion plans

Going forward, Powertel plans to increase its OFC network to around 85,300 km. According to Sharan, the company also plans to use OPGW as earth wire in all its upcoming transmission lines of 132 kV and above. Moreover, it intends to make the existing transmission lines loop-in-loop-out and provide them with OPGW. Powertel also plans to utilise SDH-based transmission equipment for building backbone communication system.

Puneet Kumar Arora