by Muntazir Abbas (edited by Alan J Weissberger) from Economic Times:
India’s 5G ambition may be thwarted as mobile infrastructure expansion is likely to remain low-paced following policy bottlenecks in the federal governance structure. Add to that India’s weak fiberization, which is mandatory for high-speed wireless network backhaul.
The country’s existing telecom infrastructure catering to a billion active subscribers may require rapid expansion, but the absence of clarity on active network sharing, distributed right-of-way norms and thin fibre penetration, may not bring 2020 a true 5G year.
The Narendra Modi-led government is eyeing to make 5G services commercially available by next year after soon-to-start field trials which would be followed by a mega spectrum sale with 275 Mhz of airwaves earmarked for the newer technology.
Plagued with high debt, the telco incumbents Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel, have not made much network investments over the past few years. In a constrained scenario, sharing of active and passive networks assume much significance.
The Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association (Taipa) Director General Tilak Raj Dua says, “In order to make 5G a success story in India, it is essential to invest on network densification heavily through provisioning of fiber, small cells and mobile towers.” Taipa represents telecom infrastructure companies in the country.
The India Department of Telecommunications (DoT), over the past few years, has apparently not been able to bring telecom tower companies to mainstream despite their ever-growing role in India’s digital service delivery.
The much-sought ‘infrastructure status’ accorded to the sector in 2012, has not materialised so far with firms seeking the Narendra Modi government to bring about radical reforms before the 5G make a debut.
Fiberization— A must do
Fibre-based backhaul is still in infancy in India. Industry’s assessment suggests that India’s robust 5G network would require 100 million fibre kilometres (m fkm) optic-fibre cable a year which has been growing at merely a rate of nearly 25 mfkm a year currently.
The government has recognized it as the strategic element for a high-speed data network, and has put a huge thrust and aims to increase fibre footprint to five fold or 7.5 million kilometres by 2022, from the current 1.5 million kilometers. In addition, the national policy aims to fiberise at least 60% of telecom towers by 2022, eventually accelerating migration to 5G.
“Achieving such speeds make fiber connectivity essential. India’s high population density also translates into deeper and denser fiber network,” ratings agency ICRA in its finding said, adding that the country has about 500,000 towers of which only 22% are fiberised as against 80% in China.
Earlier, telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan said that that the department would want to benchmark how much fibre is being deployed every day to achieve 4G and 5G, and it has to become a national priority, and added that if the industry ever wants to take 5G to the villages without fibre, it would not happen, as fiberisation remains a key driver.
State-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) that has the largest fibre base of up to 8 lakh kilometres is considering to lease out dark fibre to private players in a run up to 5G rollout that according to analysts would help operators cut Capex by leveraging state telco’s infrastructure as per need basis.
ICRA estimates the present market value of fiber assets owned by major private telecom operators stand at nearly Rs 1.25 lakh crore, with the extent of fiber rollout over the next few years would require investments of Rs 2.5 lakh crore to 3 lakh crore and sharing of fiber among multiple telcos would be the driver for a reasonable return on capital.
“5G rollout is the biggest driver for all major investment into fibre infrastructure in next five years. The next generation of technology’s performance will be dependent on the overflow of content to and from data centres,” Sandeep Aggarwal, Managing Director of Paramount Communications said, and added that the only medium capable of meeting these demands is fiber which will need to be available at every nook and corner of the country.
The government, in a recently-unveiled national policy also talked about setting up of a National Fibre Authority (NFA), but ironically there has been a dismal activity so far to take the ambitious vision forward.
The challenges, from the fibre standpoint, however, continue to remain making the 5G ride not so smooth with fibre companies together with telecom carriers seeking the Narendra Modi-led government to accelerate efforts and carve out an incentive regime.
Reliance Jio, a pure-play 4G operator that has up its ante in fibre deployment for the ambitious fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) offering dubbed as JioGigaFiber said that that to incentivise telcos, the department should draw out incentives so that operators are not challenged to deliver on fiber which is a critical element for India’s digital growth.
Earlier, Mumbai-based Jio chief Mathew Oommen said that, “service providers should use incentives for creating a deeper fiber with the redundancy of routes,” and believes that incentives should be in the form of “conducive policy to attract more investments in building fibre infrastructure” by telcos.
“5G is an interesting initiative. There is still a lag in fiber deployments in remote locations. We have learnt how to roll out fiber throughout the country, and modern technologies aligned to 5G is also one of the important factors,” R&M chairman Hans Hess told ETT.
“5G needs fiber highways and tower fiberisation is essential to be accelerated and the establishment of National Fiber Authority similar to the National Highway Authority or NHAI. These aim towards a significant portion to be invested in fibre roll out,” Sterlite Technologies Limited (STL) Group CEO Anand Agarwal told ETT.
Company’s top executive said that the national policy has accorded fibre the status of a public utility, and since fibre is essential for both wireline and wireless networks, a greater level of confidence in fibre investment was much needed.
R&M’s Hess seconded Agarwal’s views, adding that a robust fibre-based backbone would be a vital element for a network of next generation of networks.
“There would be an increase in consumption of data due to the Internet of Things (IoT) proliferation. In order to produce more data faster, a strong backbone is needed that can be built on fiber,” the Swiss company’s executive added.
“5G technology will also require a multi-fold increase in small cells deployment, with each small cell having backhaul on fibre. We are woefully inadequate in terms of optic-fibre cable density both in urban and rural areas and a special focus for its densification in a time bound manner is essential for 5G deployments,” Agarwal added.
India’s fiber coverage in kilometre per capita works out to 0.09, which is far behind 0.87 for China and more than 1.3 for the United States and Japan, according to ICRA.
The Gurugram-based firm believes that fiber density in India would have to increase at least four-fold, and that would also mean that it would evolve as a separate industry in some time, similar to the telecom tower segment in the past two decades.
Active network sharing— Do it now
The 5G, based on low latency technology, requires a dense network to seamlessly deliver Internet connectivity enabled through a telecom infrastructure such as in-building solutions, small cells, fiber and fiberised mobile towers.
In a view to ease out financially-stressed operators, the government, in the policy has envisaged active network sharing that would allow telcos to share their networks and thereby reducing their capital (Capex) as well as operational (Opex) investment. Currently, the contours of the new regime are under a discussion stage together with the department and industry, and is expected to bring much respite to 5G rollouts.
The national policy, however, talks about encouraging sharing of active infrastructure by enhancing the scope of Infrastructure Providers (IP) and promoting deployment with incentives for common sharable, passive as well as active infrastructure.
“This (active network sharing) should be done in a more structured manner. All telecom service providers should make active sharing as freely as possible that could also help them reduce Capex as well as Opex in a scenario where margins are thin,” BSNL Chairman Anupam Shrivastava said.
Shrivastava further said that it would be going to help all service providers, and added that BSNL was offering its network for sharing and the same was expected from other operators.
Sector watchdog Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), in one of its whitepaper estimates the savings on account of active infrastructure sharing to the extent of 25-35% in Opex and 33-35% in Capex.
Network sharing, according to industry analysts, can significantly bring down 5G networks rollout as well as maintenance cost. New York-based McKinsey & Company in its finding has estimated the cost reduction of up to 40% — with major savings in rollout of small cells.
5G network, according to Taipa’s director general Dua, will enable a new set of applications such as the connected devices and cars which could become a reality only if the coverage becomes ubiquitous.
In order to have a pervasive 5G and for contiguous operations, there would have to be mushrooming of small cells over a city. Infrastructure providers can play a vital role in faster deployment of small cells that comes with a huge investment and thus support telcos to save on Capex and Opex,” he added.
Telecom carriers with 5G ambitions would be able to leverage 4G unified license (UL) coverage through dual connectivity or UL-sharing and would be able to cover larger areas with the same number of sites. 5G coverage compared to 4G coverage using 1800 MHz (megahertz) spectrum band would be about 60%.
A greenfield 5G operator, according to Taipa estimates, would need to deploy about 66% more sites to compensate for penetration losses.
Right-of-way— Not so right
The industry, demanding ease in Right-of-Way (RoW) rules, has been under continuous discussions with the regulator as well as policymakers for shaping up a comprehensive ‘dig-once’ common duct policy framework that according to the industry would help in the proliferation of 5G infrastructure across the country.
The next generation technologies are shaping the world economies and the smart cities would be built on a fibre-centric network for enabling ubiquitous and seamless connectivity. Trai is expected to come out with a policy enabling ‘common duct’ that would take telecom infrastructure to a next-level of growth.
In the last two years, post industry’s continuous rigorous follow-ups, only 13 states have to some extent aligned their policies with the Centre’s RoW rules notified in November 2016, according to Taipa.
“There is an urgent need for the states to align their telecom infrastructure policies with the Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules to facilitate deployment of mobile infrastructure and connect the unconnected,” Dua added.
Deployment of small cells is significant for a proliferation 5G in India, the network rollout would have to be facilitated through enabling policies, which, according to the group, should include mandatory provisions for small cells at government lands and premises with new business models to excite municipal corporations and state governments.
The infrastructure providers such as Bharti Infratel, ATC Corporation and GTL Infrastructure demand a uniform RoW charges and single-window clearances nationwide to facilitate the telecom infrastructure for the digital delivery of services as envisaged by the Centre.