Massive MIMO Deployments in India: Bharti Airtel vs. Vodafone Idea?

by Danish Khan  (edited and augmented by Alan J Weissberger)

The deployment of massive MIMO [1] technology has led to a series of claims and counter claims between India wireless network operators Vodafone Idea Ltd. (VIL) and Bharti Airtel. Both privately held telcos claim that they lead in terms of the deployment size of this pre-5G technology.

Note 1.  Massive multiple-input, multiple-output, or massive MIMO, is an extension of MIMO, which essentially groups together antennas at the transmitter and receiver to provide better throughput and better spectrum efficiency.

Moving from MIMO to massive MIMO, according to IEEE, involves making “a clean break with current practice through the use of a large excess of service antennas over active terminals and time-division duplex operation. Extra antennas help by focusing energy into ever smaller regions of space to bring huge improvements in throughput and radiated energy efficiency.”

Many different configurations and deployment scenarios for the actual antenna arrays used by a massive MIMO system can be envisioned (see Fig. 1). Each antenna unit would be small and active, preferably fed via an optical or electric digital bus.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Some possible antenna configurations and deployment scenarios for a massive MIMO base station.

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In a statement, Huawei said that Bharti Airtel has deployed more than 100 hops of enhanced MIMO microwave link based on the latest MIMO technology developed by the Chinese gear maker. The deployment, Huawei said, will deliver 1Gbps capacity over a single 28 Mhz spectrum, improving the backhaul capacity by four times.

“Bharti implements the largest-scale MIMO deployment around the world,” Huawei said in the statement. Airtel had made its first commercial deployment of massive MIMO in September 2017.

Bharti Airtel today (Sept 26, 2017) announced the deployment of India’s first state-of-the-art Massive Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO) technology which is a key enabler for 5G networks. As one of the few commercial deployment of Massive MIMO globally, the deployment puts India on the world map of technology advancement and digital revolution. Airtel is starting with the first round of deployment in Bangalore & Kolkata and will expand to other parts of the country.

Deployed as part of Airtel’s ongoing network transformation program, Project Leap, the Massive MIMO technology will expand existing network capacity by five to seven times using the existing spectrum, thereby improving spectral efficiency. Customers will now be able to experience two to three times superfast speeds on the existing 4G network. Data speeds will now also be seamless, offering enhanced user experience even indoors, in crowded places and high rise buildings. It would enable multiple users and multiple devices to work simultaneously without facing any congestion or experience issues especially at hotspot locations.

But in an interview with ET last week, Vodafone Idea chief technology officer, Vishant Vora had claimed that it was the leader in MIMO deployments in India. “We have deployed over 10,000 massive MIMOs in India. This is the largest deployment of massive MIMOs in India and neither of my two competitors has that. They are 100-200 and we are at 10,000 plus. This is the largest deployment outside China and in the world,” Vora said.

Vodafone Idea told ET this past March:

Vodafone Idea has deployed more than 5000 massive MIMO, small cells and TDD sites across Church gate, Prabhadevi, Pali hill, Lokhandwala, Versova, Andheri, Jogeshwari, Bandra and Dadar among other regions.  The telco has also installed over 1900 indoor coverage solutions for high rises and commercial places.

“With meticulous pre-merger planning and rigorous post-merger execution, we have ensured that our customers remain confidently connected and enjoy uninterrupted services even as we integrate and optimize our network in a phased manner across circles,” said Vishant Vora, CTO, Vodafone Idea.

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Huawei is also providing 4G equipment and massive MIMO technology to Vodafone Idea in seven circles.  Huawei didn’t provide additional information.

The MIMO technology achieves four times capacity with same spectrum, allowing a telecom operator to build a 5G-ready transport network without investment in additional spectrum .  MIMO deployment also allows telcos to address the capacity-related network issues in urban areas in India, besides deploying new sites to provide coverage in rural parts.

Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Jio has also started to deploy massive MIMO technology in some of the metro cities that are seeing huge traffic growth resulting in bad data speed experience.

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References:

https://telecom.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/massive-mimo-airtel-and-vodafone-idea-stake-claim-with-deployment-size/71404917

https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/6736761

https://www.airtel.in/press-release/09-2017/airtel-deploys-massive-mimo-indias-first-5g-capable-technology

https://telecom.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/vodafone-idea-enhances-network-capacity-in-mumbai/68359629

UBS: 5G capex at $30 billion for India telcos; 5G spectrum auction by January 2020?

UBS analysts say that India’s top three telecom operators will have to spend a little over $30 billion on 5G base stations and fiber infrastructure. According to UBS, the need for a dense site footprint and fiber backhaul for 5G access networks will likely shift the balance of power towards larger and integrated operators with strong balance sheets.

Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea would need $10 billion capex each over the next five years.

“Bharti has solidly defended its market share and has narrowed the gap with Jio on 4G network reach, with improving 4G net adds. The company recently revamped its digital offering and launched converged digital proposition ‘Airtel Xstream’ offering digital content across TV, PC and mobile devices along with IoT solutions for connected homes. Further, Jio’s recently announced fixed broadband plans starting at Rs 699 are not as aggressive as we (and the market) feared and, therefore, do not pose significant pricing pressure on Bharti’s broadband average revenue per user,” UBS said in a research note to clients.

Reliance Jio’s incremental 5G capex is estimated somewhat lower at around $8 billion.  That’s because Jio already has more 5G-ready fiberised towers than the incumbents, having already spent around $2 billion on tower fiberization.

Analysts were skeptical about Vodafone Idea’s ability to sustain such big-ticket capex spends given its continuing market share losses and weak financials, which they said could limit its 5G deployment ambitions.

They also said the need for a dense site footprint and fibre backhaul in 5G would shift the balance of power towards larger and integrated operators with strong balance sheets like Jio and Airtel, while those with high gearing levels are at risk given the sustained high capex needs.

“Airtel and Vodafone Idea will each need to spend $2 billion annually on 5G radio and fiber capex spread across 5 years,” UBS said in a report, implying 65% and 85% of Airtel’s and Vodafone Idea’s current annual India capex run rates respectively.

By contrast, Jio’s 5G capex, “would be lower due to its larger tower footprint and higher proportion of towers on fibre backhaul compared with Airtel and Vodafone Idea.”  The brokerage firm also expects Jio to transition to 5G in a “time-efficient manner,” given its in-house data centres and investments in a content distribution network (CDN).

“Vodafone Idea’s stretched balance sheet will limit its participation in the 5G opportunity, and the company will require a significant improvement in network quality to arrest market share loss and revert to revenue growth,” UBS said.

Credit Suisse backed the view, saying, “Vodafone Idea will lose the most market share, and will need additional equity capital by FY2021, given our expectation of no price increase”.

UBS estimates that Airtel’s India mobile revenue will grow 5-6% in this financial year and the next even if interconnect usage charges – a source of revenue for incumbents – get scrapped from January 2020.

According to analysts, the India telecom sector can reduce overall estimated $30.5 billion 5G capex spends by 15-20% if Airtel, Vodafone Idea and Jio share towers and fiber resources.  However, there is currently no progress on that front.

“We estimate the sector can reduce overall capex by 15-20 per cent if the three Indian telcos share towers and fiber (either commercially or driven by the regulator) – third-party tenancy poses upside risks to our estimates,” UBS said in its report.

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India’s Department of Telecommunications wants to hold a 5G spectrum sale by January 2020 at the latest, according to referenced sources.

Credit Suisse doesn’t expect that 5G spectrum sale to attract much interest.  That’s due to a mix of “high reserve prices, telcos’ focus on monetising 4G investments, stretched balance sheets, a nascent 5G ecosystem and lack of significant 5G use cases for mass consumption.”

Rajiv Sharma, co-head of research at SBICap Securities, said that Vodafone Idea is unlikely to bid for 5G spectrum at current base prices “as the telco doesn’t have an existing pan-India 4G network that is essential for any telco planning to spend top dollars on 5G,” according to the report.

Analysts believe that Reliance Jio will probably take part in the process, as it is the only profit-making telco in the Indian market.

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had recently asked the Trai to lower the starting prices, which the regulator refused.  “There was a chance for the Trai to reduce 5G prices. Let’s see what the DoT does now. But at current rates, Airtel won’t buy,” Airtel’s executive reportedly said.

Vodafone Idea CEO Balesh Sharma has previously said that the prices recommended by the regulator were ‘exorbitant.’ The telco said it will participate in the next auction but did not confirm if it would buy 5G spectrum.

Hemant Joshi, partner at Deloitte India, said it would be “prudent to defer the 5G auction till 2020 at least since at Trai’s recommended base prices, the industry response may be very lukewarm.” He also said that the reserve prices need to be lowered, taking into account the experiences in countries where 5G spectrum was recently auctioned.

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Analysts said there are three things that India’s Centre for Telecom Excellence (within the DoT) must do immediately to hasten the adoption of 5G:

First, lay down a clear roadmap of spectrum availability and specify frequency bands aligned with global standards (IMT 2020 from ITU-R). Given that 5G services will be supporting massive data applications, operators will need adequate spectrum.

Editor’s Note:  India’s TSDSI has proposed a candidate IMT 2020 RIT based on Low Mobility Large Cell (LMLC), but it hasn’t yet been accepted by ITU-R WP 5D.  TSDSI posted a revised and more comprehensive proposal on 10 September 2019, which will be evaluated at the next ITU-R WP 5D meeting in December.

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Second, there is a need to move away from the existing mechanism of pricing spectrum on a per MHz basis. 5G services require at least 80-100 Mhz of contiguous spectrum per operator. If the Centre were to fix the floor price based on the per Mhz price realised in the last auction then no operator would be able to afford buying 5G spectrum. The pricing, therefore, will have to be worked out anew, keeping in mind the financial stress in the telecom sector and affordability of services.

Finally, the Centre must rapidly complete the national fiber optic network rollout as 5G high speed services will require huge back-haul support for which existing microwave platforms will not be sufficient.

References:

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