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BSNL – Building the 4G bridge to prosperity – Critical to success could be some unique pillars

The Union Cabinet recently approved the deployment by BSNL of 100,000 base stations using indigenously-developed 4G telecom ‘stack’ (‘stack’ is merely jargon for the interoperable combination of the requisite various components, technology, tools and processes). This is arguably one of the most historic milestones in Indian telecom history. The 1st telephone exchange (imported) in India was commissioned in Bombay on 30th January, 1882. After 141 years, we have now, for the first time, launched an India-developed telecom stack to put to use in India and, that too, by the 100% Indian and 100% Government-owned telco – BSNL. This is indeed a remarkable and most commendable feat of ‘Atmanirbharta’ or Self-reliance! There are probably very few parallels to this in the annals of global telecom. However, critical to this BSNL initiative would be the robustness of some unique pillars of support.

The TCS/C-DoT/ITIL Advantage- The 1st Pillar
A consortium led by the technology behemoth TCS is learnt to have received the advance purchase order worth Rs 15000 crore. Other members of the consortium are Tejas Networks Ltd, C-DoT, the Government’s Telecom R & D centre, and ITIL, a PSU and India’s 1st telephone manufacturing company. BSNL would be deploying a completely home grown telecom network which has all its components designed and developed indigenously, and in complete consonance to global standards. The 4G Core was designed & developed by C-DoT, India’s indigenous telecom R & D centre and the Tata Group company, TCS, has taken the lead in providing the Radio Access Network (RAN) The network would be jointly rolled out by the engineers of TCS & BSNL – again, a first!

The 2nd Pillar: The Longevity of 4G
Some negativists and naysayers try to belittle the government operator’s achievement with the cry – “BSNL’s 4G is too little, too late”. However, nothing could be further from truth! After all, 4G has established itself as India’s most preferred way of accessing broadband, with over 98% consumers doing so. However, the total number of 4G users is reported to be only around 750 which is just marginally more than 50%, leaving a big market still to be tapped. Moreover, it is now abundantly clear that 4G mobile broadband would more than amply meet the needs of the personal consumer segment for many years more since 5G does not present any ‘killer’ use cases for this segment, as recently explained in an open forum by the telcos. Hence, it is quite probabale that both 4G and 5G would run concurrently and complementarily till 6G becomes available around 2030 or so. Frankly, what matters to the personal users is the Quality of Experience while using a video or heavy data app and not, per se, characteristics of 5G of speeds 200 Mbps or more and latencies of a few milliseconds of 5G. In a ‘double blind’ test, most consumers would probably miss spotting the difference between a video at 40-50 Mbps using 4G and another at, say about 200 Mbps using 5G. Hence, 4G mobile broadband would more than meet the normal user’s needs . Of course, 5G would be most desirable in specialist niche enterprise applications of healthcare, manufacturing, logistics etc. However, these would be a minor fraction of the total market and 4G could prevail in most uses and applications. Thus, BSNL could hugely profit from its current entry into 4G. Moreover, it has the USP of deploying a 100%-indigenously developed technology which has its own merits and appeal.

The Potential 3rd Pillar: Packaging BSNL’s 4G with USP of PM WANI based WiFi
PM WANI based WiFi is a unique Indian development that is ideal for augmenting 4G’s download and upload capability in a seamless and affordable manner. To roll this out, all that BSNL would need is to provide an Access Point/hotspot on every BSNL tower and every telephone exchange in the country. There would invariably be a BSNL telephone exchange and/or,- whether small, medium or large and/or a mobile tower in every part of the country and these could nicely be leveraged to achieve the national objective of reaching PM WANI WiFi/broadband coverage to every nook and corner of the country. This would also help BSNL achieve and maintain a superior quality of service on their 4G network by offloading heavy data traffic everywhere onto the PM WANI based Public Wifi Network. Consequently, our worrisome Digital Divide would get significantly addressed since consumers would have ubiquitous and reliable broadband coverage everywhere with this unique mix of 4G and PM WANI Public Wifi.

India has seen PCO model succeeding in 1990s and early 2000s. The PDO (Public Data Office) model of PM WANI addresses the access issue for broadband in similar manner compared to what PCO did for the long-distance calls. Further, the PDO model envisaged has much more potential considering that the entire ecosystem has the freedom to innovate and create business models to attract customers using PM WANI WiFi as a tool.

Importantly, such an initiative from BSNL could greatly help build the robust pathway for 6G since the 6G Vision document recently released by the Hon’ble PM clearly stipulates the availability of 50 million WiFi hotspots by 2030. BSNL’s move would also spur competitors to deploy more PM WANI based Public Wifi hotspots, for the benefit of the entire country.

The 4th Pillar: BBNL’s Fiber Connectivity from DHQ to GP
The recent merger of BBNL with BSNL gives it access to nearly 6.11 lakh kilometres of freshly laid optic fiber cable network, – so critical for good broadband quality. This is between the Block HQ and the Gram Panchayat (GP) . BSNL has a total optical fibre network of more than 7.78 lakh route kms, which is the highest by the any telecom operator in India- most of this fiber is between the district HQ and the block HQ and a substantial portion of this fiber has been laid in the NLD (inter-city) backbone of the country and is quite old. The merger with BBNL has therefore boosted its capacity to handle heavy data traffic and meet much of the requirements of Rural India from the 2.23 Lakh GPs which are already connected to the BBNL’s Bharat Broadband network.

Target 100 million 4G customers in 2 years & Upgrade to 5G by year-end
It is understood that there are aggressive market share plans by BSNL. It is aiming to capture 100 million 4G customers in 2 years i.e. effectively, an average of 1000 4G subscribers per tower now being set up. While sounding a bit ambitious, it is not unachievable given that the above-mentioned USPs can pull in the customers. The market is big and BSNL has the additional psychological advantage being a Government company. The latter aspect can weigh quite heavily with rural and semi-urban customers. Being a wholly Indian-developed 4G, it could generate the additional attraction of “Be Indian, Buy Indian”.

BSNL has at last been dealt some good ‘cards’ after over 25 years. It’d be interesting to see if it is lucky enough to use these effectively. With 2-3 very agile and market-savvy private operators on the prowl, India could be quite well-positioned for the Age of 5G and beyond, if the large Government operator also develops nimbleness and a portfolio of customer-friendly policies, products and services. It could indeed be building the 4G Bridge to Prosperity, – not only for itself but also for its customers and the economy……….…The Beginning of ‘Acche Din’ for BSNL?

The article is authored by TV Ramachandran, Hon. FIET (London) and President, Broadband India Forum, with research inputs by Debashish Bhattacharya. Views are personal.

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