The telecom industry has been at the forefront of digital transformation across the globe. Driven by the mo­men­tum created during the pandemic, the year 2022 witnessed the adoption of several technologies. Telecom operators worldwide made a remarkable shift towar­ds new-age technologies such as artificial in­telligence (AI), edge computing, cloud and internet of things (IoT) to virtualise their networks. Increased automation enabled operators to strengthen their market position, improve asset utilisation and provide innovative offerings to customers. In addition, the year saw telcos making fur­ther pro­gress towards the open radio ac­c­ess net­work (RAN). As we step into 2023, the­se automated and open networks are the ones that will support the widesp­read dep­loyment of 5G use cases and lay the foundation for 6G networks.

A look at the key technology trends that dominated the telecom sector in 2022…

AI for network automation

AI has become central to the digital transformation of telcos. The technology can transform telco operations by using intelligent automated systems to design, deploy, maintain and manage networks, including proactively securing networks. It can also improve network design, enhance digital connectivity inside buildings, and optimise traffic and spectrum management. Further, AI improves network security using algorithms to detect anomalies in the network. Moreover, the sector generates huge volumes of data, and metadata, which is further set to rise with the launch of 5G, satellite-based internet, IoT and 6G in the fu­tu­re. In this regard, AI simplifies and ex­pan­ds the mining process for data aggregation, analysis and collective intelligence. In terms of customer-centric functions, AI can power virtual assistants and assist in ha­n­dling queries and complaints, and choosing tariff plans. It can also look at data consum­p­tion and phone use patterns, tariff plans and other variables to predict levels of churn and possible pain points, thus im­proving customer retention.

Acknowledging these benefits, telcos in India have started investing heavily in the technology. For instance, Bharti Airtel has partnered with Aviat Networks Limi­ted for wireless multiband radio soluti­o­ns. Aviat’s multiband vendor-agnostic feature enables traffic aggregation from multiple links, which in turn reduces network congestion and provides better speed to custo­mers. Airtel will deploy unique dual-channel E-band radios to augment its exis­ting installed microwave network as well as new greenfield links, to support its ac­cele­ra­ted 5G network build-out. Recen­tly, Airtel renewed its agreement with Eri­c­s­son to modernise its network and enable automation. Under the partnership, Eri­csson will deploy the latest automation, machine learning and AI technologies to enhance Airtel’s mobile network performance and customer experience. The operator has also deployed Avanseus’s predictive maintenance solution across its operations. The solution applies AI analytics principles to Airtel’s network data to uncover actionable operational insights.

In a similar move, Reliance Jio partne­red with Guavus to leverage the latter’s AI-based solutions in order to provide real-time customer experience and predictive analytics that would enable it to automate network troubleshooting and generate key marketing insights. This will help Jio offer superior service to its customers while ad­d­ressing critical service operations throu­gh intelligent automation.

Further, Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) se­lected Cisco for its network automation systems with the aim to augment user ex­perience and accelerate the launch of new services on its 4G and future 5G netwo­rks. Moreover, Vi automated its IT infrastructure and operations from end to end by adopting the Red Hat Ansible automation platform. Meanwhile, state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) partnered with Nokia for industrial automati­on solutions. In a move towards automati­on, BSNL signed an MoU with Ciena. Under the MoU, Ciena’s 5G network sol­utions will add scale and enable network automation in order to support a new age of mobile connectivity at BSNL.

Enhancing connectedness with IoT

IoT is driving digital transformation and innovation in telecom through its applications. Two of the most common telecom use cases are asset management and remo­te system monitoring. By using an IoT platform, telcos can connect their diverse physical assets to the cloud and remotely manage their operations, investigate malfunctions, run firmware upgrades, and keep track of inventory. Telecom operators can also utilise their infrastructure to offer new services such as tailored consumer applications, wide area IoT solutions, and IoT-ma­naged services. Using a highly versatile IoT cloud platform, any telecom op­erator can provide its own IoT solution to a variety of business verticals. More­over, communication service providers (CSPs) can minimise operational costs by applying IoT technology for software-defined networking and network function virtualisation.

According to a report by Frost & Sullivan, Airtel is the market leader in the cellular IoT space, with a market share of 45.5 per cent. The operator offers a flexible set of application programming interfaces to shorten the cumbersome integration journey and allow enterprises to str­eam the process of connecting, collecting and analysing data through their existing workflow tools. The telco is also aiming to create a complete ecosystem throu­gh colla­borations with start-ups and other players. Further, the company has a larger plan for the device ecosystem. Its parent, Bharti Enterprises, has collaborated with Dixon to manufacture set-top boxes, routers and networking devices, including IoT devices.

Meanwhile, the enterprise arm of Vi, Vi Business, launched integrated IoT solutions for enterprises. The offering is desig­ned to simplify and accelerate the digital tr­a­nsformation journey for enterprises. Rece­ntly, the Centre for Development of Tele­ma­tics (C-DOT) and Vi signed an MoU to develop and deploy IoT/machi­ne-to-ma­chine solutions in India. Vi has also partne­red with Tata Consultancy Ser­vices (TCS) to provide a superior custo­m­er experience across areas such as custom­er life cycle ma­na­gement, order management, IoT product life cycle management, billing, and device and customer support. TCS has dep­loy­ed HOBS, a cloud-based pre-integrated IoT subscription management platform on a catalogue-driven ar­chitecture, to help Vi launch, manage and monetise IoT services rapidly. The operator has been a strong player in the telco IoT connectivity space, accounting for ab­o­ut 54 per cent market share. The company is leveraging its innovation lab to build these IoT offerings.

Further, Jio’s pan-India IoT network, based on narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) technology, is already operational and has been launched in partnership with Samsung. Jio deployed its first commercial NB-IoT service for Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited’s smart meters. In another significant development in the IoT space, BSNL signed a strategic partnership with Inmar­sat to offer its IoT services in India.

Rise of telco cloud

Growing digitalisation coupled with the large amount of data generated across industries is driving the demand for cloud-based connectivity solutions. Indian telcos are collaborating with cloud providers to enhance their revenue stream and offer cloud-based connectivity solutions to en­terprises. New business models are emerging whereby CSPs and hyperscale cloud providers work together to offer edge clo­ud services.

For example, Jio and Microsoft anno­un­ced a partnership to offer a detailed set of connectivity, computing and storage solutions and other technology services and ap­p­lications essential for Indian businesses. Airtel also announced a similar arra­n­ge­ment with Amazon. Jio, in partnership with Google Cloud, will explore building new services across the gaming, healthcare, edu­ca­tion and video entertainment sectors. The­­se services will use Jio’s 5G network and software, and Google Cloud’s innovati­ons in cloud-native technologies.

Further, Vi Business partnered with Go­o­gle Cloud India to offer collaboration solutions for enterprises and start-ups. Google Workspace will equip Vi Business Plus customers with a set of productivity applications at no extra cost. Also, Tata Communications launched DIGO, an in-network, cloud communications platform to power customer engagement for digital-first businesses.

Computing at the edge

A natural extension of cloud computing, edge computing has gained relevance as it offers an effective solution to the emerging network problems associated with the movement of massive volumes of data. It brings compute, storage and networking clo­ser to applications, devices and users wh­ile enabling lower latency, high bandwidth, device processing, trusted computing and storage, and backhaul cost savings.

As Indian telcos move towards 5G deployment, more and more data will need to be computed, stored and processed at the edge. Over a period of time, edge will emerge as a new revenue model for telcos. In an important move, Airtel partnered with IBM to deploy Airtel’s edge computing platform in India, which will include 120 network data centres across 20 cities. Airtel’s edge computing platform, deploy­ed as a hybrid environment based on IBM Cloud Satellite and Red Hat OpenShift, will extend secured and open cloud servi­c­es wherever data resides. Airtel also la­un­ched multiple new products under its edge cloud portfolio including the edge con­tent delivery network (CDN). Airtel Cloud’s edge CDN accelerates web and video content delivery by using its edge net­work to bring content as close to users as possible. In addition, Jio partnered with Google Cloud to introduce a portfolio of 5G edge computing solutions to help ind­ustries ad­dress real business challenges. Jio has also enabled edge computing on its cloud-native 5G network at more than 50 facilities across India.

Towards open architectures

Open RAN has emerged as a promising al­ternative to legacy RAN architecture and is expected to reshape the mobile network ec­o­­system, especially in the 5G era. Op­en­ing up RAN through 5G networks offers the benefits of virtualisation and automation, and enables cost savings and interoperability. Industry estimates reveal that the deployment of open RAN frameworks can drive down the operator’s capital expenditure by a significant 40-50 per cent and op­erational expenditure by 30-40 per cent.

While still at a nascent stage, open RAN is gaining considerable momentum in India with telcos eyeing it as a viable me­thod to cut network-related costs and customise it as they upgrade their networks to 5G. Airtel conducted India’s first open RAN-based live 5G network validation in partnership with Mavenir. The telco also partnered with the vendor for open RAN-based 5G field trials in the millimetre wave (mmWave) and mid-bands at Chandigarh tri-city. Further, it partnered with Intel for 5G network development by leveraging virtualised RAN and open RAN technologies. The operator also an­n­ounced a strategic partnership with the Tata Group to build 5G networks based on open RAN technology and roll out products and solutions for India, and eventually for the rest of the world. In a recent development, the Department of Tele­com­munications (DoT) tested an open RAN-based 5G field trial conducted by Airtel using the 3500 MHz band test spectrum. ­Meanwhile, Jio and Qualcomm earlier partnered to develop open interface compliant architecture-based 5G solutions with a virtualised RAN and achieved speeds of over 1 Gbps on the Jio 5G new radio (NR) solution, using the chipmaker’s 5G RAN platforms. The telco also collaborated with NXP to implement a 5G NR open RAN small cell solution. As per the chipmaker, the combined solution would deliver high performance and enable a range of 5G use cases.

Other stakeholders are also betting big on open RAN. For instance, C-DOT, Wi­Sig Networks Private Limited and VVDN Technologies Private Limited sig­ned an agreement for collaboration in the area of open RAN-based radio network for 5G solutions. In a separate move, VVDN Te­chnologies announced the introduction of a new end-to-end 5G testing lab for 5G open RAN-based radio unit (RU) devices in India. Further, Sterlite Technologies Li­mi­ted collaborated with Analog Devices to develop 5G open RAN RUs. Mean­while, HFCL Limited recently joined the O-RAN Alliance. As a member of the Allian­ce, HFCL will contribute to standards that en­su­re a truly open and multivendor RAN net­­work. Further, HCL Technologi­es laun­ched a 5G open RAN lab in India to enable global telecom industry players to transition to 5G.

5G roll-outs gain pace

5G spectrum auctions in India concluded in August 2022, adding a new dim­en­sion to the country’s telecom industry. Post the au­ctions, Airtel and Jio laun­ched their res­pective 5G services in Octo­ber and early November 2022, with Airtel claiming over a million subscribers. Both operators are now rolling out services across the co­untry in a phased manner.

The Airtel 5G Plus service runs on op­en RAN. Apart from carrying the entire portfolio of services that Airtel currently offers, 5G will add features and services such as high definition, low-latency strea­ming, cloud-based gaming, multiple chatting apps, instant photo uploads, IoT, and a host of business solutions.

Meanwhile, Jio’s 5G service is based on standalone 5G architecture. Jio claims that the network is indigenous, with most of the capabilities being developed through re­se­arch and development by Jio alongside its US subsidiary Radisys.

Recently, DoT decided to allocate sp­ectrum worth Rs 620 billion to BSNL for rolling out its 5G services by August 2023. To this end, a DoT committee app­ro­ved a proposal to allocate a 10 MHz block in the premium 700 MHz spectrum band worth about Rs 400 billion to BSNL along with 70 MHz in the mid-band worth about Rs 220 billion for 5G services.

6G talks begin

Now that 5G roll-outs have begun, the in­dustry has started holding discussions ar­ou­nd 6G, the successor to 5G networks. 6G is predicted to be a disaggregated, virtualised and scalable network comprising smaller network functions with granular functionality, which will enable applicati­on-specific protocol processing. The mmWave frequency bands in the 24-52 GHz range, pioneered by 5G and likely to soon be extended up to 100 GHz, will naturally be used by 6G. The 7–24 GHz ran­ge can be exploited for 6G by deploying advanced sharing.

As per industry experts, 6G can support 1 microsecond latency communication, which roughly translates into communication and data transfer speeds that are several hundred times greater than what is available at present. Telecom experts are of the view that 6G can potentially support about 1 TB of data per second.

It is anticipated that global standards or­­ganisations such as the International Tele­­communication Union will release the IMT-2030 document for 6G in 2030. Ot­her standards organisations such as 3GPP, IEEE and regional standards bodies of Ko­rea, Japan and India are working to de­velop their own standards around the same timelines. Standardisation Phase 1 is likely to start from 2025, leading to the first 6G specification to be ready by 3GPP Release 21 in 2028. It will be followed by commercial deployment around 2030.

Sarah Khan