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Ripe for Technology Disruption

Stakeholders in the telecom value chain must capitalize on the potential of new age technologies and help drive transformational changes that go beyond their core business.

Stakeholders in the telecom value chain must capitalize on the potential of new age technologies and help drive transformational changes that go beyond their core business.

With 4G expected to be at the forefront of broadband uptake in the country and 5G no longer a distant dream, telecom carriers are radically transforming ageing legacy networks, throwing their weight behind next-gen technologies to enhance data capacity and deliver ultra-low latency, paving the way for the creation of a truly digital ecosystem in India.

Some technological trends that service providers are currently exploring for future proofing and fine tuning their network architecture as they prepare for the 5G era are discussed.

Massive MIMO. As India’s data consumption booms, it is imperative to address the challenge of huge capacity requirement. Massive MIMO (multiple input multiple output) is seen as a key technological solution that multiplies network capacity significantly without needing additional spectrum, helping operators cater to very big capacity requirement in super hotspot type of locations. Bharti Airtel has deployed massive MIMO in Bengaluru and Kolkata with plans to expand the technology to Pune, Chandigarh, and Hyderabad.  This pre-5G technology will enable Airtel to enhance existing network capacity by five to seven times, optimizing spectrum efficiency, substantially reducing interference and boosting data speeds. It is also expected to lead to a significant reduction in networking costs. Idea Cellular, Vodafone India, and Reliance Jio are presently conducting massive MIMO trials in various cities, aiming to rollout the technology on 4G. Massive MIMO can deliver data speeds averaging between 30 Mbps and 35 Mbps, and even up to 50 Mbps during peak times, up from the current mobile Internet speeds of up to 4 Mbps to 16 Mbps. For trialing and deployment of this futuristic technology in various circles, mobile carriers have formed tie-ups with telecom gear vendors, ZTE, Huawei, Ericsson, and Nokia.

VoLTE. As India switches from voice-centric to data-centric model, telecom carriers are betting big on VoLTE (voice over long-term evolution) technology, that enables voice communication over data pipeline. VoLTE deployment carries multifold benefits. By ensuring that voice and data run on the same 4G layer, it allows high quality and high-definition voice calls. Incumbent operators use legacy circuit-switch technology to offer voice services with data being offered on a 4G network and voice on a 3G or 2G network. Voice offloading from 2G and 3G may help refarm precious 2G and 3G spectrum for 4G use. Furthermore, VoLTE could relieve some of the pricing pressure that the industry is currently under, since it has lower cost per minute than traditional voice. After Reliance Jio, which launched its VoLTE-enabled service in late 2016, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone India are proceeding with the commercial rollout of the cutting-edge technology. Vodafone India has begun rollout of VoLTE in Mumbai, Gujarat, Delhi, Karnataka, and Kolkata with planned expansion to other parts of the country. Airtel has launched VoLTE services in Mumbai, Chennai, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Karnataka, with pan-India coverage likely by March 2018. The company is planning to create a ubiquitous 4G layer across the country, that is phasing out 3G gradually and migrating all its users to 4G based on the VoLTE communication standard. Idea Cellular, which is in the process of merging its operations with Vodafone India, plans to launch VoLTE by the end of FY 2018 with ongoing trials in five to six important markets. The company is in discussions with key vendors for VoLTE deployment. Further, BSNL has begun a nation-wide rollout of 4G VoLTE.

Fiberization. Fiber backhaul, which can deliver unlimited capacity and low latency, is considered quintessential to India’s successful transition to 5G. At present, only 20 percent of towers are fiberized with 80 percent of cell sites in the country still connected via microwave backhaul, which suffers from bandwidth issues as it uses traditional bands providing 300 Mbps of capacity. To handle the tremendous data explosion especially video traffic, fiberization of all towers including wireless fiberization using E and V band spectrums is imminent to increase backhaul capacity. Wireless technologies such as E-band will also play a critical role to provide last mile connectivity wherever fiber is not feasible or viable as these are expected to decrease interference between the mobile sites and reduce pressure on fiber-based services to provide backhaul solutions. Bharti Airtel, which has 160,000 sites, of which only a third can be backed by fibre, making it imperative for the industry to use radio waves in E-band for 5G. Installing higher capacity microwave links is also required for enhancement of backhaul infrastructure. The latest technologies for providing last mile cable connectivity in India are DOCSIC 3.0 and GPON. Reliance Jio is moving aggressively on large-scale fiber rollout. Jio has laid out over 300,000 km of optic fiber in India with planned deployment of high-speed fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) broadband in more than 30 cities scheduled for early 2018. Last August, Jio had begun FTTH beta trials in select areas of 10 cities including Mumbai, Delhi-NCR, Ahmedabad, Jamnagar, Surat, and Vadodara. The JioFiber network is capable of providing data speed up to 1 Gbps. The company has recently acquired Reliance Communication’s assets that include its optical fiber cable (OFC) network spanning 178,000 km with pan India footprint.

Bharti Airtel has transformed its existing FTTH network by the deployment of V-fiber, which is based on European standard vectorization technology, with a potential to deliver data speeds of up to 100 Mbps. Idea Cellular has also deployed FTTH technology to deliver wireline broadband services to select housing societies in Pune at ultra-high speeds ranging from 20 Mbps to 200 Mbps, which can be potentially increased to 1 Gbps in future. The company has upped its fiber backbone network from 100,400 km in Q2 FY16 to 150,500 km in Q2 FY18. Under the Digital India initiative, BharatNet, the government is also increasing fiberized sites in the country.

Network cloudification. Indian telecom operators are moving toward cloudifying core networks to enhance network resource utilization and reduce OpEx and maintenance costs. Further, the adoption of cloud-based solutions will lead to increased service and competitive agility, paving the way for fresh revenue generation streams. Cloudification of radio access network (RAN) architecture provides carriers complete flexibility from topology to resource allocation. Spectrum cloudification enables various radio access technologies (RAT) to share spectrum dynamically, maximizing spectral efficiency and bettering network coverage.

Carrier aggregation. Surging data traffic is pushing operators to deploy carrier aggregation (CA) technology which is a key enabler of LTE-advanced, and combines fragmented operator spectrum across bands, improving spectrum efficiency and utilization, leading to low latency and delivering two to three times faster speeds than the present 4G LTE. Bharti Airtel has deployed CA technology in Kerala, Mumbai, and Bengaluru using Nokia telecom equipment, merging spectrum across the 2300 MHz (TD-LTE) and 1800 MHz (FD-LTE) bands and delivering peak download data speeds of up to 135 Mbps on commercially available handsets, faster than on a normal 4G network. Airtel has also implemented CA for dual carrier HSPA (3G) in the Chennai circle by combining two 2100 MHz bands next to each other to deliver 42 Mbps speeds. Reliance Jio has also been conducting CA trials across all bands to virtually create larger airwave blocks and deliver high speeds. With its ability to increase network capacity, CA would benefit Indian telecom carriers by helping lower the CapEx required in terms of number of sites deployed. The rollout of the technology will be targeted toward data-intensive technologies such as 3G (900, 2100 MHz) and 4G-LTE (700, 1800, 2300/2500 MHz). The currently lagging CA handset ecosystem is set to improve with more CA deployments. CA is expected to be critical in enabling both IMT-Advanced and the use of emerging spectrum allocations. A creative and collaborative approach across the telecom industry for future innovation and network optimization is needed to drive CA to be a future mainstream technology.

A CA technology conceptualized by Qualcomm, LTE-unlicensed is dedicated toward the usage of the 4G LTE radio communication technology in unlicensed spectrum including the 5 GHz band used by 802.11ac compliant Wi-Fi equipment. LTE-U could be an alternative to carrier-owned Wi-Fi hotspots. The LTE-U will give telecom operators the flexibility to leverage the entire allocated spectrum band. Reliance Jio is in dialog with gear vendors and Qualcomm for the rollout of LTE-U while Idea Cellular has also been evaluating its feasibility.

SDN & NFV. With legacy networks inept in terms of scalability and flexibility to handle the rapid explosion in data consumption in the country, key emerging technologies such as software defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV) offer a virtualized and automated approach that enables operators to efficiently scale their networks, making them more agile, optimizing resource utilization, lowering OpEx and helping them maximize ROI from 3G and 4G and smoothing the transition to 5G. Furthermore, these cutting-edge technologies will also allow telecom carriers to beef up their security performance to overcome cyber threats and help them offer security services such as firewall on demand to retail and enterprise customers. Realizing the need to migrate to a software-centric network architecture that is dynamic, manageable, cost-effective, and adaptable in wake of rising bandwidth demand and dynamic applications, leading telecom operators are also moving toward the adoption of SDN and NFV. Bharti Airtel recently entered into a strategic agreement with SK Telecom, Korea for collaborating on evolving technologies including SDN and NFV and building an ecosystem for their rollout in India. Airtel, Vodafone India, and Idea Cellular have held discussions with technology providers such as VMware for the deployment of virtualization technologies. Reliance Jio is also working toward the adoption of the twin technologies, as it gets its network 5G ready.

Small cells. Deployment of small cells in India is on the rise amid the inherent need for greater capacity, coverage, and improved user experience. With Indian operators aiming to deliver better in-building coverage, which is still a tough task on the 2300 MHz band that is mainly utilized for 4G services, small cells offer a viable solution amid their ability to handle the densification of networks and combat mobile bandwidth issues. Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio Infocomm, which are making significant investments in indoor coverage have been deploying small cells solutions to make their networks future ready. While Airtel has been rolling out 8000 small cells, pico cells, and indoor Wi-Fi hotspots as part of its heterogeneous network (HetNet) for optimizing data service, Jio has deployed more than 100,000 small cells in the country so far, with plans to increase the count to 150,000 in its endeavor to build a smart network. Airtel has deployed HetNet in Gurugram, Pune, and Bengaluru.

NB-IoT. Indian telecom operators are exploring the potential of Narrowband-IoT a new technology standard which aims at broadening the future of IoT connectivity, thereby supporting a large number of M2M connections, while reducing power consumption. NB-IoT requires only 200 kHz of bandwidth and can run alongside existing cellular networks while it is optimized for low throughput and has potential to deliver uplink and downlink data rates of nearly 200 kbps. The technology, which is ratified by the 3GPP will enable carriers to address connectivity needs of vertical industries and open up fresh revenue streams for them amidst rising competition. Leading telcos have been holding discussions with Huawei for the commercial deployment of the technology in India. Bharti Airtel and Vodafone India are already operating in the IoT space with solutions such as location tracker, automotive telematics, smart metering, security and surveillance, managed IoT, and connectivity platforms among others. Given that it uses low bands for coverage, NB-IoT is expected to play an even bigger role once 5G is rolled out in the country. Its use cases may include smart parking, smart metering, and smart lighting, autonomous driving, while the technology could also be pretty helpful for various enterprise applications like utility meters, sensor monitoring, and asset tracking.

LoRA. A key IoT enabling technology, LoRa (long range) is a low power, secure, LoRa and bi-directional data transmission solution that uses unlicensed spectrum, significantly enhancing coverage of public and private networks. While some of the world’s leading telecom carriers have started deploying LoRA, Indian operators have been slow in making investments in IoT-based technologies. However, the low power wide area network (LPWAN) technology which possesses seamless usability in all types of environments including urban and rural, and operates on a low bandwidth is ideally suited for India, especially the country’s remote areas which do not have access to licensed spectrum coverage and require easy to install network infrastructure for powering their IoT applications.

2G Set to Stand its Ground

Even as India makes itself 5G ready, it is not the end of the road for 2G, the much older and slower version of mobile telephony, as 2G-compatible feature phones remain integral to many Indians particularly the rural folk who are quite happy with basic Internet access, preventing carriers from pulling the plug on the technology just yet. Low tariffs and cheap devices mean that 300 million Indians are still stuck on 2G especially for voice calling. India still has nearly 30–35 million feature phones being shipped out every quarter, while their installed base is about 70 percent, a sign that feature phones are here to stay in the near future as affordable price points and simplicity appeal to the less-literate, low-income, and less digital savvy communities. A report by Mobile Marketing Association and market research firm Kantar IMRB revealed that only 15 percent of the 979 feature phone users surveyed planned to make the switch to smartphones in the next purchase. However, over time this trend is likely to change as more 4G handsets start matching the price points of 2G ones. For the time being, India could be one of the few countries, which deploy a 4G+2G technology model to cater to the needs of its diverse population.

Industry experts also predict the coexistence of 4G and 2G in India. India will get to a situation where 4G and 2G networks will coexist for a while. 3G will probably shut down faster, Airtel India CEO Gopal Vittal said at a conference call with analysts in August 2017. A GSMA report foresees 3163 million 2G subscribers by 2020, outpacing the 2284 million 4G subscribers. While mobile operators are hesitant to commit fresh investments into 2G with next gen technologies like 4G and 5G becoming the prime focus, 2G remains an important part of their business plans. Having achieved coverage in 500,000 villages, Bharti Airtel is not rolling out any more 2G networks, but sees 2G continuing to gain some traction due to strong offtake of feature phones in the country. Vodafone India, which is in the process of completing its merger with Idea Cellular, and BSNL are working to improve 2G coverage, having entered into an agreement in September 2016 to leverage each other’s 2G services network in the country. However, Reliance Communication has bid goodbye to the 2G business, while Reliance Jio operates solely on the 4G network. Further, recent technological advancements can allow usage of 2G technology along with virtualization, making it simpler to install and also easily upgradeable to 3G/4G. Low power consumption and larger coverage area also make 2G appropriate for a developing market like India as some IoT applications such as smart parking effectively work on 2G infrastructure.  For the country’s hinterlands where 3G or 4G services are not yet accessible, 2G is the way of life, ensuring that every Indian reaps the benefit of digitization.

Has 4G Accelerated the End for 3G?

As 4G takes hold in India, 3G could be on its way out, as better technological efficiency, higher delivery speeds coupled with a rise in cheap 4G enabled phones make the former a more viable option. Catalyzed by Reliance Jio’s Greenfield LTE network, telecom carriers are primed to shift to a 4G+2G network by 2019, making India one of the first countries to adopt such an approach. The freed up 3G spectrum would also lead to cheaper availability of 2G while being used to migrate users to the faster LTE standard. While operators are yet to monetize the massive investments poured into the 3G network since its deployment in 2010, slow uptake of 3G is also pushing them to move subscribers to 4G that is superior in terms of technology, capacity, coverage, devices, and pricing, making it a preferred choice for smartphone users. Until 2015, 3G penetration was a paltry 9 percent owing to costly data pricing packs and expensive smartphones, a sign that the technology has failed to take off fully in India. While Reliance Jio already operates entirely on the 4G network, Bharti Airtel too plans to completely phase out 3G in 3–4 years, upgrading 3G users to 4G based on the VoLTE communication standard in a move to yield cost optimization and ensure a seamless broadband experience .The company has stopped making 3G investments and sees 3G networks shutting down faster than 2G in India.

Where is India on 4G Technology?

With the market awash in competitively priced and readily available 4G enabled smartphones, the progression to 4G has been accelerated. The focus is on building a ubiquitous pan-India 4G layer, which coupled with VoLTE, will ensure that voice and data run on the same 4G layer, enabling HD voice calling facility over LTE networks. Even with India set to catapult into a full-grown 4G power in 2018, overtaking the United States as the second largest 4G phone base, abysmal 4G internet speeds remain a cause of concern as the country is ranked lowest among 77 countries with average 4G LTE speeds at 6.13 Mbps, according to Open Signal. Telcos are leveraging both TDD-LTE and FDD-LTE standards to offer 4G connectivity. Surging data traffic coupled with an endeavor to deliver high-quality data experience on 4G is pushing carriers to undertake various technological deployments such as CA, small cells, vectorization, and fiberization, to enhance overall efficiency and increase capacity to meet growing demands. For technology evolution to 4.5G and 4.5G Pro, site connectivity to fiber and use of optical fiber backhaul can act as efficient and higher capacity data transfer solutions, providing improved in-building access. With less than 30 percent of towers in major cities currently fiberized in India, the requirement to increase fiberization is massive. Indoor data consumption demands will increase the need for small cells as a localized coverage and capacity solution. Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio Infocomm which are making significant investments in indoor coverage have been deploying small cells solutions to make their networks future ready. VoLTE deployment, which has begun in India is expected to lead voice offloading from 2G, in a move that may refarm precious 2G spectrum for 4G use.

Is India Getting 5G Equipped?

While India is becoming increasingly 5G aware, some technical roadblocks exist in the form of infrastructural hurdles that threaten to push back the cutting-edge technology’s deployment in the country beyond the 2020 goal. Set to deliver breakneck speeds of up to 10 Gbps, 5G or the fifth-generation wireless broadband technology based on the IEEE 802.11ac standard, will transform the way we communicate with individuals and machines, creating an ecosystem of connected devices and ushering an era of smart living in a Digital India. Some identified use cases for 5G could include medical IoT, Industrial 4.0, connected cars, smart city IoT, and ultra-broadband.

The road to 5G so far. As it seeks to make 5G a reality in the country by 2020 in line with the global timeline, the Indian government has established a high-level forum for devising a 5G roadmap related to emerging technologies, testing, and trials. Meanwhile, telecom carriers are redefining their network architecture and investing in pre-5G technologies to support higher bandwidth and increased data traffic capacity. Telecom gear makers are also playing a key role in ensuring that Indian telcos are fully prepared for 5G adoption. Huawei Group has tied up with Bharti Airtel for the deployment of Massive MIMO, a key 5G enabler, set to increase spectrum efficiency and slash networking costs.  Reliance Jio, Vodafone India, and Idea Cellular are presently conducting Massive MIMO trials as they get their networks future ready. Ericsson has upgraded its radio systems for the next gen technology for deployment by Indian carriers, and its radio systems are currently being deployed for 3G and 4G networks. Airtel and BSNL have partnered with Nokia for development of 5G and its use applications in the country. Reliance Jio is collaborating with Cisco for building the world’s biggest all-IP converged network. Jio is also leveraging Samsung’s data-centric solutions such as SON, VoLTE, and traffic optimization, while deploying a massive network of small cells and small cell backhaul products to beef up coverage and capacity for delivering high data and voice speeds, creating a strong path toward 5G. ZTE is conducting pre-5G trials with leading telcos including Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, and Reliance Jio for development of future technologies, with discussions ongoing over 5G backhaul deployment.

Challenges that lie ahead in India’s 5G adoption. Lack of clarity on 5G spectrum allocation is an issue with industry players that are reeling under huge debt in favor of the government delaying the spectrum auction until 2019, when the ecosystem for the technology’s deployment in India would have also become fairly developed. A lot remains to be done on the infrastructure front with 5G entailing virtualized infrastructure, software-defined, cloud-oriented, and lower cost networks that provide flexibility, scalability, and agility. The 5G core network will be based on service-based architecture and virtualization will allow telecom operators to offer VPN services, security services, among others, paving the way for new revenue streams amidst intense competition. Leveraging virtualization technologies such as SDN and NFV, network slicing, and orchestration will ensure smooth running of the whole network even as it becomes increasingly complex. SDN and NFV will drive flexible and automatic resource allocation while allowing operators to boost capacity more efficiently without investing in high-priced proprietary hardware. Deployment of a fiber-based backhaul network that is flexible and offers low latency, low interference, and unlimited capacity is a must for 5G adoption. With India remaining highly un-fiberized as less than 30 percent of towers in major cities are currently fiberized versus the requirement of 70–80 percent needed for 5G, a well-defined policy is needed to drive investment, both in fiber and high capacity wireless infrastructure for future proofing networks. Installing higher capacity microwave links when fiber is not a viable solution is also needed. Un-licensing of E-band and V-band will enable carriers to install massive backhaul to provide last mile connectivity. As 4G is expected to work in tandem with 5G, operators need to continue fine tuning their LTE footprint to ensure 5G success. While implementation of IMS-based VoLTE is in early stages in India, the technology is imperative for integrating more complex, 5G-based voice technologies in future while freeing up legacy spectrum bands for refarming. Finally, putting in place a robust safety infrastructure to ensuring security and confidentiality of data is also essential for the superconnected era fueled by 5G.

Its 2018 and India is readily embracing the digital future. Amid the rapid explosion of smart devices and reasonable broadband speed at competitive prices, virtual applications from digital payments to OTT video streaming, online gaming, and social networking have successfully permeated Indian lifestyles. With a data revolution sweeping across the fastest growing smartphone market in the world, telecom carriers are radically transforming ageing legacy networks with next gen technologies, edging closer to an era of ultra-low latency. Government initiatives such as Digital IndiaSmart CitiesPayments BanksMake in India, coupled with the 4G LTE rollout have paved the way for exponential growth of M2M, Cloud, IoT, Big Data & Analytics, creating an influx of voice, data, and video, requiring a future-proof and reliable communication network infrastructure for the establishment of a truly digital ecosystem. With the modern day consumer demanding anytime, anywhere services, investment in advanced technologies has become imperative, despite short-term strain on balance sheets. Deploying a country-wide fiber network and delivering ubiquitous public Wi-Fi connectivity are key mandates for realizing the ambitious Digital India dream.

With fiberization being deemed critical to achieving the Digital India goal and paving the way for 5G in the country, the government’s massive national optic fiber network project, BharatNet seems to be finally picking up pace with the second phase of the program now underway. As part of the first phase, 101,370 gram panchayats have been made service ready with the deployment of around 2.55 lakh km high speed fiber. BharatNet aims to connect India’s 250,000 gram panchayats via a state-of-the-art future proof OFC network by March 2019. Aside from connecting the remaining 150,000 or so villages, the second phase of the project will ensure broadband delivery via satellite at 5300 locations across the nation, and aerial fiber and wireless installations, with a projected spend of Rs 310 billion. To ensure high-speed Wi-Fi services to the country’s hinterlands, the government has envisioned increasing India’s Wi-Fi hotspot count from 38,000 currently to half a million by December 2018 with deployment of two-three hotspots per gram panchayat.

By utilizing locally manufactured equipment developed by C-DoT, BharatNet is giving impetus to the government’s Make in India vision. The entire technological equipment comprising the Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON), optical line terminals, and optical network terminal for broadband connections is being indigenously-made to suit India’s rural landscape that suffers from frequent power outages.

BSNL, Tejas Networks, ITI, C-DoT, Finolex Cables, Vindhya Telelinks, and Sterlite Technologies have been actively involved with the project while carriers Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, and Reliance Jio have committed to work on pilot projects for service delivery with low tariffs via BharatNet in 70,000 village blocks. Several state governments including that of Gujarat, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand have also made a commitment for driving the implementation of the second phase of the BharatNet project with the Centre providing technological and financial support.

Wi-Fi Hotspots on the Rise

As India gets ready to accomplish its smart city and digitization dream, Wi-Fi rollout is rightfully getting a major push with the center aiming to deploy 750,000 lakh public Internet hotspots by the end of the year.

At present, India boasts of only 38,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, which is woeful when compared to developed countries with 13 million in France, 9.8 million in the United States, and 5.6 million in the United Kingdom as a large part of the country’s population remains unconnected to the web. Since 2010, wi-fi hotspots in India have increased by 12 percent, in comparison to 58 percent globally.

The government has heightened focus on providing high-speed Internet connectivity to the country’s rural and semiurban areas which suffer from connectivity challenges. With broadband connectivity in over 100,000 village blocks already achieved by laying underground optic fiber lines under the BharatNet program, the key resource for setting up Wi-Fi hotspots is in place. Before the end of 2018, the center aims to establish two-three Wi-Fi hotspots per gram panchayat, delivering 1 GB data, with 100 million citizens expected to be covered by the technology by 2020. The service providers along with Internet service providers will carry out the deployment of pan-India wi-fi hotpots. BSNL itself, which is equipped with a robust fiber backhaul, is installing 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots across the country including 25,000 in rural areas.

Large-scale wi-fi deployment is likely to give a fillip to e-governance and other digital empowerment initiatives such as branchless banking, remote health, and remote education. Creation of high-speed and affordable digital infrastructure will make accessible smart city features such as smart parking, smart home metering, digital libraries, smart homes via control lighting and air conditioning.

NTP 2018 Set to Spur Technological Innovation

With the country’s telecom sector undergoing a period of stress amid mounting debt levels, shrinking margins and rising competition the new telecom policy expected to be unveiled by April 2018, could help restore the ailing sector’s health while tackling network and technological readiness challenges for widespread absorption of budding technologies such as IoT, 5G, and artificial intelligence (AI).

The new telecom policy focuses on future proofing India’s digital infrastructure amid the advent of breakthrough technologies while facilitating the growth of the telecom sector. NTP 2018 would aim to help tackle current and future challenges of emerging technologies like 5G, IoT, and AI and spur technological innovation.

Key areas addressed in the recently released TRAI consultation paper for the development of the national telecom policy for 2018 include measures to catapult India as a global leader in the fourth industrial revolution by making it a center for data communication, systems, and services.

The telecom watchdog’s recommendations envisage attracting investments worth USD 100 billion in the communication sector, deployment of 900 million broadband connections delivering download speeds of at least 2 Mbps, establishment of 10 million pan-India public Wi-Fi hotspots, and pushing India into the top 50 of the networked readiness index from 91th place currently.

Other critical goals identified include increasing rural tele-density to 100 percent from 56.78 percent presently, delivering data connectivity of minimum 1 Gbps speed to all village blocks and ensuring access to high-quality wireless broadband services at affordable tariffs to 90 percent of the population, steps that will help achieve inclusive socioeconomic growth in the country.

The new telecom policy will also address regulatory uncertainties dogging the sector with TRAI proposing a licensing and regulatory framework for cloud-service providers, laws related to data privacy, protection and security, cross-border data transfer policy, and enactment of net-neutrality laws prohibiting discriminatory treatment of content by Internet service providers.

Saddled with a massive cumulative debt pile of around Rs 4.6 lakh crore, the new telecom policy may allow telcos more time to make spectrum payments, a step that could breathe some life into their financial report cards.

Technological Focus to Redefine Telco Landscape in 2018

Even as the telecom sector passes through an extremely tough phase amid falling revenues and unsustainable debt levels, exasperated by brutal price competition, technological disruption is forcing a transformational drive as operators seek to stay relevant in the constantly evolving digital landscape.

While consolidation was the order of the day in 2017 with the Vodafone–Idea mega merger leaving just three major players standing in the business, 2018 promises to spur large-scale technological innovation as operators pin their hopes on digitally lean and agile business models to counter revenue erosion.

As mobile usage in the country shifts from voice to data, convergence as a business model will emerge as a major opportunity for telcos. Converged services with voice telephony, wired and wireless broadband, and television services such as content and video bundling, IoT, FinTech, and lifestyle propositions related to home appliance control are expected to generate fresh revenue streams, helping telecom carriers to effectively monetize the country’s tremendous data explosion.

With 5G knocking on the door, network transformation through virtualization technologies such as SDN and NFV are expected to gain traction as legacy networks become inept to handle rising bandwidth demand, and complex and dynamic applications. Hardware resource pooling, fully automated operations, and distributed software architecture will drive efficient network agility, flexibility, and scalability, allowing operators to launch new services in a very short span of time. Data center automation and creation of distributed data center architectures is a necessity for Indian operators amidst the proliferation of broadband networks. Tapping technologies such as NFV will enable operators to shelve purpose-built hardware platforms and move toward lower-cost, general purpose servers, reducing operational costs. SDN architectures will enhance management of complex data center networking environment, leading to greater automation and simplification of service creation and delivery.

Leading telecom carriers are also throwing their weight behind emerging automation technologies such as self-optimization of networks or SON that automates the entire field maintenance for radio, leading to reduced OpEx due to cutbacks in manual efforts related to monitoring, optimizing, diagnosing, and healing of the network. Creation of a self-healing network and integration between the radio and performance management systems at the telecom firms’ backend will automatically heal any network issue, even before user awareness of deterioration in the network.

Telecom carriers will also look to leverage AI and advanced analytics to revolutionize customer service delivery, translating into cross-selling opportunities and customized offerings, OpEx reduction owing to improved efficiencies, and enhancing top and bottom lines. AI will also help in smooth integration of technologies such as SDN, NFV, and orchestration, and automating the network through anomaly detection and prediction, thus providing an intelligent network operation and maintenance solution. Enhanced network operations and network reconfiguration will lead to optimized profit margins. Machine learning which is already being deployed in India in specific areas of sales, distribution, and marketing and HR functions is likely to become more pervasive with a continuous increase in suitable algorithms. Machine learning algorithms which will enable subscriber profiling and analysis of conversion rates and content usage patterns, will allow mobile operators to push timely, tailor-made packages.

Continued investment in fiberization and backhaul technologies is also a must for telcos to make their networks ready for the 5G and IoT era. Low-capacity microwave backhaul that has significant bandwidth issues and is still being used at majority of the country’s cell cities would be unsuitable for running 5G applications which require ultra-low latency. Fiberization of tower sites coupled with the creation of an end-to-end IP network provides a robust last mile solution.

Deployment of Voice over LTE (VoLTE), which is in early stages in India is expected to pick up, becoming a core of future networks. VoLTE which is a better voice engine than circuit switch is delivered via the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS). By enabling voice and data to run on the same 4G layer, VoLTE allows quality of service and high-definition voice calls and has lower cost per minute than traditional voice, while voice offloading from older gen networks may help refarm precious 2G and 3G spectrum for 4G use. An extension of VoLTE, Video over LTE (ViLTE), which enhances voice services with a high-quality video channel, and when complemented with rich communication services (RCS) can deliver a more comprehensive service offering, presenting fresh revenue opportunities for TSPs. Integration of VoLTE with Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) would enable telcos to monetize Wi-Fi hot spots and load the traffic on the Wi-Fi network. Wi-Fi is set to become an essential part of telecom operators’ network strategy to enhance access and extend coverage of cellular networks particularly indoor coverage. Building an all-IP infrastructure cuts OpEx of carriers via resource utilization while also allowing them to launch new higher value-added services such as HD voice, HD+ voice (EVS), video calling, multidevice, multi-SIM, call enrichment, helping operators to counter the rising VOIP and OTT threat. Further, as new use cases for VoLTE calls for Cat-M1 develop, the technology can open the door for new revenue streams for operators through extension of mobile voice service capabilities to IoT-enabled applications such as security alarm panels, remote first-aid kits, wearables, digital locks, disposable security garments. Embracing voice technology, which is sustainable for current and 5G networks would cut down the complexity and costs of further modernization. The availability of affordable device bundled offers could increase uptake of LTE/VoLTE enabled devices and increase adoption.

Finally, the ongoing consolidation in the sector may lead to greater synergies, cost optimization, and improved margins which may pave the way for investment in newer technologies. While the Vodafone––Idea merger set to be complete by March 2018 may create the country’s biggest mobile carrier, Bharti Airtel has acquired Tata Teleservices, and Reliance Jio recently bought spectrum, mobile phone towers and fiber assets of Reliance Communication.

With India being on the threshold of a digital hyper-revolution amid the rapid proliferation of smartphones, all stakeholders in the telecom value chain must capitalize on the potential of new age technologies and help drive transformational changes that go beyond their core business.

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