The Indian telecom infrastructure space has undergone a significant transformation over the last couple of years. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant digitalisation of operations across industries, contemporary infrastructure such as in-building sol­utions, smart poles, smart towers and data centres has gained traction, along with an increasing demand for traditional mediums such as telecom towers, optical fibre and subsea cable infrastructure.

The penetration of traditional infrastructure mediums has also increased sig­ni­ficantly. As per government data, the number of base transceiver stations grew by 187 per cent from 800,000 in 2014 to 2,300,000 in 2021, while towers grew by 65 per cent from 400,000 to 660,000 during the same period. Further, the penetration of optical fibre cable (OFC) increased by 150 per cent from 1,100,000 km in 2014 to 2,800,000 km in 2021 (as of October 2021).

Under the government’s BharatNet initiative, a total of 17,232 gram panchayats (GPs) were made service-ready during 2021 (as of October 31, 2021), of which 16,344 GPs were connected via OFC and 888 GPs via satellite media. As of Nov­ember 1, 2021, a total of 179,247 GPs had been connected under BharatNet Phase II, through the laying of 552,514 km of OFC.

The global smart pole market size is expected to reach $26.55 billion by 2028. In fact, a recent report by Navigant Re­search predicts that annual smart pole deployments will increase from 600 in 2019 to 22,000 by 2028, growing at a compound annual growth rate of around 50 per cent.

A look at the key developments and trends that are shaping the telecom infrastructure sector, and the way forward…

Active infrastructure sharing

There are several perspectives on active infrastructure sharing and its promising impact on coverage, quality of service and pricing. It can also provide telcos with cost saving opportunities, which in turn will help them invest in next-generation technologies.

Currently, active infrastructure sharing is permitted among telecom service pro­viders (TSPs) only, and is mostly limited to feeder cables, radio components, etc. For the industry to truly benefit in terms of operational efficiency, sharing of infrastructure will be critical going forward. The pra­ctice of sharing can bring in requisite synergies between telcos’ operations and will significantly reduce capex and opex.

Recently, the government allowed ac­tive infrastructure sharing for Wi-Fi rou­ters and access points. Sharing is expected to boost the adoption of public Wi-Fi servi­ces, as well as broadband penetration. This is a positive move and will require collaboration between various industry stakeholders. In fact, with digitalisation at the core of the nation’s growth, extending the scope of active infrastructure sharing by bringing in more participants in the ecosystem will help in mitigating several industry issues to a great extent.

That said, active sharing comes with a lot of complexities. The interoperability of  hardware is a challenge. Security is an­other consideration. Then there are is­s­u­es of segregating frequencies and en­suring least interference. Further, given the competition between TSPs, telcos may not always want to expose and share their resources, technology and architecture with competitors.

Tower structure and design

Of late, the telecom tower industry has been seeing a lot of development as far as the structure, design, operations and management of towers are concerned. For instance, the telecom infrastructure industry is rapidly moving towards innovative solutions in an effort to drive operational efficiency. These include internet of things (IoT) for asset management; drone-based tower inspection; and mobile applications for operations and maintenance, and workforce management. Further, towercos have started setting up tower operation centres, which offer real-time monitoring of sites, digitalisation of field operations, predictive analytics for operations and real-time GPS-based mapping for disaster management. Smart rental and energy billing is also quickly gaining popularity in the sector. It offers higher accuracy and reduced billing time, customised invoice formats, and ease of tenancy movement for telcos. Moreover, industry players are now increasingly focusing on adopting sustainable practices for the management of tower infrastructure.

In addition, towercos have started adopting innovative tower designs, which help in optimising the cost of buildout. For instance, smart poles give towercos the opportunity to monetise various adjacencies. In fact, these smart poles are fast em­er­­ging as the preferred medium of tower deployment among industry players. To­wer­cos are also experimenting with camouflaging techniques to help tower structures blend in with the surrounding landscape. They are deploying more aesthetic towers, disguising them as trees and plants. Among camouflaged tower structures, one of the most commonly spotted to­­­wers is the lattice tower. They usually appear in the shape of the Eiffel tower. This type of tower construction can be useful in situations that require modifications such as mounting a large number of panels or dish antennas. Stealth camoufl­age towers are also popular monopole de­signs. They can be used to meet zoning regulations. The purpose of such a structure is to hide a tower from plain sight whenever necessary.

Tower site fiberisation

While the current capacity per tower site is about 1 Gbps (for 2G/3G/4G services), once 5G kicks in the capacity needed for each site will increase to 10-20 Gbps. This will call for a fundamental change in the technology deployed at these tower sites. Industry will have to move from the traditional microwave to fibre. As per industry analysts, traditional microwave can only provide speeds of 500 Mbps-1 Gbps, and even E-band microwave can provide only 1 Gbps-2.5 Gbps of speed, depending on the allocation of spots. Hence, in order to achieve capacities of 10-20 Gbps, fibre will have to be deployed across all tower sites.

The current status of tower fiberisation in India is exceptionally poor compared to its global counterparts. At present, India has around 0.5 million tower sites, of which only 0.1 million are fiberised, accounting for about 30 per cent of the total. This is significantly lower than global standards. In South Korea, 65-70 per cent of sites have been fiberised, while in the US, Japan and China, the level of fiberisation is 75-80 per cent. For the 4G network alone, there is a need to fiberise 35-40 per cent of tower sites. The need for tower fiberisation is becoming even more pertinent with the move towards technologies such as artificial intelligence, IoT, machine learning and cloud.

In-building connectivity

Today, most of the data generation is happening inside buildings. But the kind of coverage and capacity that we get inside buil­ding premises is severely restricted. Furt­her, as fixed and mobile services are becoming increasingly converged, the need to deliver fibre-to-the-home or fibre-to-anything is becoming even more apparent.

The fiberisation of small cells is another area that has started receiving industry attention, especially after the surge in in­door connectivity. Small cells play an im­portant role in covering large complexes, whether offices, residences or colonies. Op­­erators are increasingly deploying sm­all cells to better manage the growing in­door data traffic. While small cells bring cost benefits, their efficacy is mainly de­pendent on the availability of a fibre conn­ection. Small cell deployments often utilise millimetre wave spectrum, relying heavily on fibre-cabled connections for the backhaul portion of the network.

There is a need to make buildings fibre-ready. Ultimately, the objective is to carry fibre to the farthest point, nearest to the customer, from where it can be served. Once this is achieved, it will also accelerate the process of digitalisation. With these types of fibre, small cells and low-power technologies being brought in, the door would be opened to a whole new range of activities. These include surveillance, access control and parking solutions. In addition, building management and IoT will get a major impetus and connected homes will emerge in a big way.

Emerging growth areas

Subsea cable infrastructure

The submarine cable connectivity space is also witnessing growth. In May 2021, Reliance Jio announced that it is constructing two international submarine ca­ble systems in India. These cables are the India-Asia-Xpress system, which connects India eastbound to Singapore and beyond, and the India-Europe-Xpress system, whi­ch connects India westbound to the Mid­dle East and Europe. These high capacity and high speed systems will span over 16,000 km and provide over 200 Tbps of capacity. The government has also laid em­­phasis on expanding submarine fibre cable coverage. To this end, the state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited awarded a contract worth Rs 10.72 billion to NEC India for laying submarine fibre cable spanning approximately 1,891 km between Kochi and Lakshadweep.

Edge data centres

A key growth avenue for both telcos and towercos is edge data centres, which are slowly gaining traction owing to the proliferation of several low latency and high throughput applications that require edge computing technology. These edge data centres are small, regional, cost-effective, automated, micro-modular data sites that can power high speed computing.

Edge data centres also present an att­ractive revenue generating opportunity for towercos. Towercos have certain str­en­gths, such as a vast fibre footprint, which gives them an edge in the data centre business. Fibre connectivity is a critical component of these centres. Thus, the fibre infrastructure owned by towercos can be used to establish data centres. Further, tele­com tower sites have steady power supply, ready access to fibre backhaul connectivity and the requisite real estate. They are also located at the network edge. Most of these towers have enough space at their base to install data centres. By deploying edge data centres at their sites, towercos can onboard customers with stringent latency requirements, such as content delivery network providers and cloud providers, which support edge-specific applications.

Requirements of smart cities

All the components of smart cities and integrated command and control centres re­quire a critical element – fibre-based backhaul. Fibre not only provides the necessary backhaul support for the efficient functioning of smart city networks, but also enables effective handling and transmission of the large amounts of data generated from these networks and systems. Services such as Wi-Fi, video surveillance and security, smart urban infrastructure, and smart mobility and management are en­abled through fibre infrastructure. Ap­art from fibre, smart towers, smart poles, data centres and electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure are the key components for establishing smarter cities of the future. To this end, towercos have em­erged as ideal partners for deploying smart poles, expanding the data centre space, and evolving the EV charging landscape in smart cities. While towercos are actively collaborating with smart city authorities to deploy smart poles, they are still exploring opportunities in the EV charging and data centre ecosystems.

Challenges and outlook

The telecom infrastructure space in India is expected to scale new heights in the coming years. While the immense government support has helped in the transition from traditional infrastructure to digital infrastructure, a lot still needs to be done. The biggest hurdle today is the omission of small cell deployment and access to street furniture in the Right of Way Rules, both of which can play a significant role in shaping India’s 5G growth trajectory. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, indoor connectivity through small cells has emerged as a critical factor in ensuring digital growth and enabling densification of the 5G network. Another issue is the shortage of adequate backhaul and high costs.

To address these issues, the Department of Telecommunications has recently formed a committee to review the availability of street furniture, particularly the strength of electricity poles and air speed, so as to assess if they are capable of being leveraged for a seamless 5G network. The committee is reviewing the quantum of state-owned infrastructure to make it available for 5G small cell deployment.

While the formation of the committee is a step in the right direction, the country needs a well-formulated action plan that streamlines the process of deploying small cells, has minimal regulatory hurdles, promotes sharing of infrastructure and comprises an affordable fee structure. Such an action plan will go a long way in strengthening India’s 5G dream.