Sairam Prasad, president, field operations, Reliance Jio

Fibre-based telecom networks are becoming need of the hour. Earlier, fibre was primarily used for backhaul or core networks, but in the emerging 5G scenario, fibre will also be used for middle haul and front-haul networks. At a recent conference, Sairam Prasad, president, field operations, Reliance Jio, spoke about the key drivers for fiberisation, the current state of deployment, emerging opportunities in India and the role of infrastructure providers. Excerpts…

Key drivers for fiberisation

There is a lot of buzz around 4G maturation and 5G evolution in view of the increasing data speed and volume demands. Fibre has become the enabler for meeting these needs. While there are over 700,000 telecom sites in the country, only 30-40 per cent are connected to fibre today. As 4G matures, we will have to connect all sites with fibre. This is one of the key drivers for fiberisation. Further, the upcoming 5G networks will require many fold fiberised sites. Immense densification in the form of small cells will be witnessed in the 5G scenario, with each cell requiring fibre connectivity.

Another driver is the low fibre broadband penetration. Currently, majority broadband penetration is through mobile and there are around 20 million plus wired broadband connections, of which fibre-wired homes are very few. Considering the size of our population and the number of households in our country, a lot more needs to be done in the fibre-to-the-home space. Apart from telecom, defense, healthcare and medical service sectors also use lot of fibre which will drive fibre growth.

Current scenario

In India, we have a little over 2 million route km of fibre deployed by various stakeholders including public sector entities such as Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), RailTel, GAIL and Power grid etc. as well as private telecom operators. There is a need to double the fibre footprint to meet the immediate term data growth demand.

Deployment models

There are multiple ways of deploying fibre. Generally, core fibre networks are deployed along national highways by using more reliable methods like underground cabling and horizontal directional drilling etc.. The fibre in access networks, which are in cities and towns, is deployed using multiple methods. In very dense areas, micro-trenching is used so that there is no disturbance from traffic. Sometimes, existing poles are utilised to connect through aerial cables. The cost of fibre depends on the way fiberisation is done and varies greatly depending on the way it is deployed and other factors like Right Of Way.

Opportunities for players in the ecosystem

Over next five years, we will witness scaling up of fibre networks. There will be only two things in the network – fibre and airwaves. They will work together and get converged in the near future. This scenario would open up a huge business opportunity for all existing fibre vendors and suppliers.

As we move towards deeper and high speed fiberisation, vendors should also develop products that can meet fibredemand, which is expected to increase by around 10x. Vendors need to develop ultra-low-loss fibre cables that can last for 25-30 years and offer high quality, reliability and technical efficiency.

There will also be ample opportunities for contractors that lay fibre. Laying of even a 1 km of fibre in India require a team comprising engineers and labor force. Likewise, laying a million km of fibre will create ample job opportunities for skilled, semi- skilled and un-skilled workforce.

The contractor fraternity will need to do a lot of work to mobilise its workforce, train its manpower and develop a skilled team of people who are ready to take up the work of fiberisation in the coming years. Further, operations and maintenance (O&M) service providers should be financially and technically ready to take up fibre life-cycle management by developing proper automation tools that can help them reduce manual intervention in O&M.

Role of infrastructure providers

In view of the rising fibre demand, the telecom infrastructure industry needs to focus on enabling digitalisation and catering to the needs of digital India in the future. To this end, the industry has to play a key role as an enabler by scaling up fibre deployments in a big way so that all digital players can enjoy the same level of infrastructure availability and transform their networks to high speed digital networks.