Rajesh Gangadhar, chief technology officer, access solutions, STL

A confluence of technologies across networks in recent times has led to the creation of digital networks. These digital networks are still evolving and seeing a host of emerging trends. As times are changing, so are the requirements of these networks. STL is a company that has been evolving with these changing times and has transformed into an end-to-end network solutions provider. Of late, the company has been increasingly focusing on building these technologies and hardware offerings for new digital networks. Further, the company has been actively contributing to the larger “Make in India” ecosystem for 5G, with a host of initiatives. Rajesh Gangadhar, chief technology officer, access solutions, STL, talks about major trends in the digital network sector and the company’s key offerings in the wireless and hardware/equipment space…

What have been the worldwide trends and imperatives for digital networks?

The year 2020 marked the beginning of an unprecedented decade of network creation. Telecom operators acrosss the globe accelerated aggressive investments in the broadband digital network infrastructure. The pandemic has greatly influenced operators’ capex spend on network upgrades, expansion and adoption of new technologies and solutions such as 5G and fibre-to-the-X (FTTx) (homes, large, medium and small enterprises). With 113 operators launching 5G in 48 countries, roughly 229 million 5G connections were established at a 4x faster adoption rate. Similarly, on the fixed access front, some of the global FTTx initiatives are the UK Openreach programme and the Digital India Programme. In the process, open networking solutions across wireline and wireless (ONF SEBA and BBF for wireline and Open RAN/O-RAN for wireless) are transforming from niche domain technologies to real on-the-ground deployments.

While the pandemic has hastened broadband investments globally, telcos are also investing heavily in cloud infrastructure, driving virtualisation to enable scale, elasticity, agility and a multidimensional network to concurrently service multiple customer segments. Further, telcos and internet service providers are finding new revenue generation models through the adoption of OTT applications, offering on-demand content and gaming, which was previously not feasible due to low latency and high bandwidth requirements.

To achieve the same, telcos have embarked upon a cloud journey, bringing cloud computing capabilities to the network edge. Jio partnered with Microsoft, exclusively targeting small- and medium-sized enterprises, and Bharti teamed up with Amazon on enterprise products, geared specifically for the Indian market. These cloud service providers invested heavily in new data centre build-outs, be it edge or collocation.

While enterprises continue to adopt digital technologies, we also see deep fiberisation to cell towers/sites to accommodate the higher data bandwidth required at the network edge. Telecom service providers and governments are also continuing to build optical fibre-based networks to bridge the digital divide.

Key imperatives for digital networks:

  • Technology and architecture evolution to virtualised, disaggregated and open networks to support multidimensional customer segments (consumers, enterprises, various industry verticals), applications and services.
  • Large capex investments towards network deployment. According to MTN Consulting, in 2021, telcos’ capex is likely to grow 4 per cent and they will account for roughly 53 per cent of the ICT industry capex by 2025, driven on the back of investment in digital infrastructure.
  • Focus on customer experience with consistent quality of service (QoS) and quality of experience (QoE) while lowering the cost of operations.
  • Driving new avenues for revenue generation through the development of use cases for different industry verticals and even for a particular company.

How is STL building technologies and hardware offerings? What are your key focus areas?

STL embarked on an SDN/NFV initiative in late 2017, with a focus on open interface, disaggregated and virtualised FTTx platform to enable telcos to offer feature-rich white box solutions, while improving the total cost of ownership. This programme has since matured and it is now in active trials with Tier 1 operators. In 2019, we entered the wireless domain, exploring software and hardware platform solutions to address the O-RAN disruption, with a focus on offering value to our customers through network intelligence and orchestration platforms and open interface-based radio offerings (small cells, macro, single- and multiband radios). STL is fully committed to developing innovative products and solutions, based on open networking, and is investing heavily in building a team of global industry talent with deep domain expertise and specialisation in open networking standards.

What is STL’s strategy for the wireless and hardware ecosystem?

STL is ready for the next generation of network creation, based on robust wireless and hardware. Our five strategic pillars for the same include:

  • Designing technology-led end-to-end solutions customised to customers’ requirements;
  • Increasing the overall opportunity funnel and win-ratio across global accounts in the open networking domain;
  • Enabling large-scale complex integration of converged wireless – wireline networks and connectivity-compute networks to deliver lower total cost of ownership and faster time-to-market for our customers;
  • Forming a strong ecosystem of alliances and investments to increase the total addressable capex; and
  • Building top talent and culture for driving and creating our own knowledge base and delivering superior returns to our shareholders and community;

How are you contributing to the larger Make in India ecosystem for 5G?

STL is setting up a home-grown ecosystem for 5G and is focusing on building this ecosystem on the wireline (pFTTx) and wireless (O-RAN) domains. Following are some of the key initiatives taken by STL to achieve this:

  • Catering to the 5G-led fibre demand: According to the CRU, the Indian optical fibre cable (OFC) demand is likely to grow to 20.08 million fibre km by 2021 and 24.48 million fibre km by 2022. STL is planning to invest Rs 3 billion to increase its OFC capacity from 18 million km to 33 million km.
  • State-of-the-art innovation and research centres: The company has set up four innovation centres to experiment with design and build prototypes for small cells and related applications. Further, STL has 569 patents to its name and is still counting.
  • Investments and partnerships with 5G ecosystem players: STL recently announced a host of partnerships and investments in the 5G space. These include the acquisition of the IDS Group; ASOCS investment; partnership with VMware, Saankhya Labs and VVDN; association with IIT Madras; participation in open-source forums such as ORAN, ONAP, ONF and TIP to develop virtualised solutions, cloud-native solutions, radio hardware and services solutions.
  • Hardware ecosystem: STL is also developing a hardware ecosystem, which will help democratise 5G in developed as well as emerging economies (5G multiband radio, Garuda small cell portfolio, Wi-Fi 6 access point).
  • Customer proof of concept and trials: The company is partnering with leading telcos around the world to enable maturing and adoption of open networking access solutions.
  • Sponsored innovation events: STL has associated with AGNIi, Start-up India and Invest India to mobilise innovation in artificial intelligence, image analytics, automation, etc.
  • Strengthen the Make in India 5G ecosystem: STL is investing in technology, software and hardware product engineering capabilities to drive innovation and operational excellence to serve customers adequately. The company is also working towards assembling an ecosystem of partners for design and manufacturing.
  • Create next-gen digital network ecosystem: Creation of the ecosystem via specialised technological confluences – (i) wired and wireless; (ii) software and hardware; (iii) connectivity and compute; and (iv) open source – all at the edge of the network.
  • Collaboration with academia: Association with IIT Madras for research and technical advancements in 5G, fostering an innovation mindset in young Indian technologists.

What are your future plans?

We have expanded our addressable market by adding capability in access solutions and optical interconnect and are seeing an early success. Buoyed by investments in digital networks, the OFC industry volumes in the second half of 2020 have grown by 5 per cent year on year. STL volumes have grown faster than the industry and recorded an all-time high. We are on track to increase the OFC capacity to 33 million fibre km by June 2021.

While our plant utilisation is at an all-time high and our service execution speed has improved on a quarter-on-quarter basis, we expect the growth momentum to continue in the future. With our recent product launches on the wireless side – indoor small cells, multiband radio, Wi-Fi 6 access point – we are well poised to deliver cutting-edge wireless, open and programmable solutions to telcos and network players across the world.