As India witnesses surging levels of data consumption, optic fibre cable (OFC) is being seen as the most suitable medium for catering to this burgeoning demand. Telecom operators are in the process of strengthening their OFC reach to deliver high speed data services. However, there is an urgent need to address right-of-way (RoW)-related issues to ensure expeditious fibre roll-out. Moreover, sharing of this valuable asset must be considered in order to enhance the country’s fibre footprint in a timely manner. At a recent conference, “OFC Networks in India”, telecom operators shared their views on the growth trends in the OFC space, the major issues and challenges, and their future plans. Excerpts…

K.D. Lakhmani, Principal General Manager, BSNL

Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has the largest optical fibre network asset in the industry, with a length of about 700,000 km, and we are continuously striving to enhance our fibre presence in all the areas where we operate. Given the massive size of our OFC infrastructure, its maintenance is a challenge. It is imperative that the network stays in good health, for which we have to regularly repair and replace the OFC. We undertake repairs of 5-10 per cent of the total network every year. Some cable also gets decommissioned on an annual basis due to life expiry or non-usage. We are replacing an old cable with a new one every year, which also accounts for 5-10 per cent of our total network. We are also continuously expanding our network in different areas. For the BharatNet project, we have been able to leverage our existing network to some extent.

We have about 150,000 km in the last mile and around 350,000 km in the backhaul. While none of this is shared with other operators currently, we are considering opening up this OFC for other telcos/ internet service providers (ISPs) that are interested. Last year, we had planned to lease out around 50,000 fibre km to different entities. But we could secure interest for only around 10,000 km, which we are leasing out to different state departments. A few telcos have also approached us and we are already in conversation with some top ISPs.

RoW is a challenge

A few years back, private operators had a more difficult time with the state governments and municipal corporations as compared to BSNL. But the situation is different now. Now, BSNL too has issues with the state authorities and municipal corporations, despite the fact that the central government has come up with a good RoW policy.

More than RoW, it is the reinstatement charges that are a bigger bottleneck. Deployment of fibre in cities results in some damage to roads or other city infrastructure. The authorities typically impose exorbitant reinstatement charges on telcos to compensate for the damage. This is a very important aspect on which the industry has to come forward and educate the state governments and municipal corporations on the need for fibre deployment.

Infrastructure for 5G

With 5G coming in, several new towers will come up and each one would have to be fiberised. Most of our towers in cities and urban areas are fiberised, as we already have infrastructure to connect exchanges. That said, there is a need for a common duct policy, not only for city routes but for national highways and expressways as well.

Going forward

The National Fibre Authority, announced under the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018, should take shape soon and be given the responsibility to assess all the fibre assets of industry stakeholders. Fibre must be seen as a national asset and be utilised for ensuring high speed connectivity and proliferation of data services across the country.

Sairam Prasad, President, Field Operations, Reliance Jio 

In the past few years, India has witnessed a massive surge in data consumption. This will increase multifold in the future with the advent of many more new bandwidth-hungry applications, as well as with the maturing internet of things and machine-to-machine ecosystem. All this will require a more robust infrastructure, which comes with higher data carrying capacity and thus fibre is the best medium.

Shift from GBs to PBs

It was not very long back that the industry was measuring data usage in gigabytes, which got converted into terabytes, an increase of about 1,000 times; and now we are talking about data consumption running into pettabytes, which is an increase of another 1,000 times. While it is difficult to quantify the future growth, since that purely depends on how the digital application ecosystem evolves, it is safe to say that the data consumption will only grow in the future. As for the telecommunications industry in particular, 4G network is fast expanding. Its penetration is increasing. So, as 4G penetration doubles, data consumption will also double.

Tower fiberisation

There is an urgent need to connect towers with fibre. In a 4G scenario, every tower requires very high bandwidth, depending on how many customers are connected to that tower. Depending on the spectrum bands on which services are offered, telcos would like to put as many radios on a site. For instance, if there are two-three telcos operating in multiple bands like 850 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2300 MHz, each one of them is likely to put 9-10 radios. And each radio requires at least 50 Mbps capacity. Here, a fibre backhaul becomes essential to provide the requisite capacity.

Undoubtedly, connecting every tower with fibre is a must, going forward, but making this a reality is an uphill task. Currently, Jio has the highest number of towers connected with fibre.

Case for FTTx

Currently, the penetration of fibre broadband to homes in India is very low. One would require huge amounts of fibre to connect all homes. The telecom network only provides an aggregator level of fiberisation. But to ensure that fibre reaches every home in every lane in every state is a Herculean task. This will clearly take much more time compared to connecting towers. That said, every telecom operator today is putting in efforts to fiberise homes.

Fundamentally, there are two key reasons because of which fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) becomes important. One, with a direct-to-home (DTH) connection, the dish is susceptible to changes in weather conditions. Further, it has limited bandwidth – it is a one-way broadcast. Also, a consumer is limited by the content that the DTH operator provides. In contrast, with fibre there is no limitation on applications that a user can access. In addition to internet TV, several smart home applications can  be used. All the home appliances can be connected for smart monitoring. There are several options for internet TV now a days which are in use.

Moreover, most of the data consumption happens indoors today. Homes, and offices and commercial establishments are seeing the maximum data consumption. With wireless, there are issues penetrating indoors due to penetration loss, which, in turn, impacts the user experience. In order to deliver a high speed experience on certain premises, it is important to offload data traffic on to a medium that is available inside the building.

Deployment scenario

There are multiple ways in which fibre can be laid; the best way, of course, is to lay it as deep as possible. At Jio, the majority of the fibre is being laid by using a technology called horizontal directional drilling (HDD), which has better reliability and is less prone to cuts. Even in the case of digging on the surface, the fibre remains safe underneath. But it is not possible to lay HDD fibre everywhere, particularly in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, where digging of roads is often not allowed due to high traffic density and the issue of traffic disruption. Here, the Indian government can take a cue from other countries, where often a common duct is built alongside the road to house all utilities. There is no digging required and the fibre can be blown into the duct.

Back home, we actually end up following multiple practices for deploying fibre. We practise microtrenching where there is a busy road. Sometimes, we use the existing utility poles. In other cases, we go for aerial cabling.

Sharing is the key

Clearly, it is difficult for all operators to go for fiberisation across the country, and sharing this valuable asset will become crucial in the future. It is a matter of establishing the right business and operating models to encourage sharing. Ten years ago, the tower sharing model was initiated in a big way and today telcos install very few new towers; the first choice is always to share a tower. It is built only if there is no tower in that place. In the coming years, this model is likely to be replicated for increasing the country’s fibre footprint too.