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Telcos trial 5G use cases but fiberisation, towers are lacking

India is on the brink of next generation technology, 5G. In the midst of telecom players demonstrating new use cases for 5G using trial spectrum, the infrastructure readiness – fiberisation of sites and adequate number of towers -is far behind the ideal scenario.

At least 70% of towers need to be fiberised from the current level of 33% for the launch of 5G services. An estimated investment of Rs 5 lakh crore will be required for setting up telecom infrastructure in the next four years in terms of fiber and towers, according to experts.

To make 5G launch a success, investments in network densification through provisioning of fiber, small cells, and active infrastructure sharing is required.

The government plans to auction 5G spectrum in the second half of this year. The industry has been demanding affordable pricing of 5G spectrum considering the financial health of the industry which has reduced to just three private players post consolidation.

But the infrastructure issues are hanging at a time when data traffic is growing manifold. 4G services contributed 99% to the total data consumption while mobile broadband users in India more than doubled to 765 million and 4G data traffic grew 6.5 times in the last five years, according to the annual Nokia MBiT report. With 5G on horizon, the data growth is expected to increase significantly.

Fiberisation of towers is critical to carry high amount of data once 5G kicks in. Fiberisation links cell sites to a point-of-presence and to the Core of network. It will seamlessly support the increasing number of data users.

Infrastructure woes
Compared to India where 33 % of towers are fiberised,in South Korea 65-70% of sites have been fiberised, while in the US, Japan and China, the level of fiberisation is 80-90%. In terms of the fiber laid, the fibre kilometre (fkm) per capita in India is much less compared to several other key markets. The fkm per capita for China with a population 1.3 billion strong, while for India with a population of 1.2 billion, is just one-tenth, i.e. 0.09. Japan and the US lead in this aspect with 1.35 and 1.34 fkm respectively, as per India Infrastructure Research, 2021.

The industry needs to scale up investment in key components of the 5G network i.e. spectrum, fiberization and towers on pan-India coverage. Does the industry have funds available to invest looking at the precarious situation of few? Experts ask.

Around Rs. 2.2 lakh crore of investments will be required in optical fiber infrastructure, to fiberize 70% of towers in next four years and an investment of Rs. 2.5 lakh crore will be required to set up 15 lakh towers in the next four years, as per estimates by the National Broadband Mission and Cellular Operator Association of India (COAI).

“There is a need to spur investment in digital infrastructure to have a successful launch for 5G. Currently, 34% of towers are fiberized and there is a need for a stronger push from the government to build at least 50% of sites on fiber,” SP Kochhar, director general, COAI said.

COAI is a telecom industry body representing telcos Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, and Vodafone Idea, as well as telecom gear makers like Ericsson and Nokia.

While fiber remains the ideal choice, telecom players can go with microwave backhaul as it has an advantage of capacity and ease of deployment. Microwave backhaul refers to the transportation of voice, video, and data between distributed sites and a centralized point-of-presence via airwaves. GSMA, an association of mobile network operators, says that most telcos rely on microwave backhaul solutions in the 7GHz to 40GHz bands, in addition to the V-band (60GHz) and the E-band (70/80GHz band).

“5G infrastructure requirements will be enormous and we are still at the beginning stage of implementation. However, despite the cumbersome nature of rollout due to COVID-19, excitement about 5G has picked up greatly and we are taking steps in the right direction,” Purushothaman KG, partner and telecom sector leader, KPMG in India.

Akhil Gupta, vice chairman, Bharti Enterprises, had recently said that 5G networks require robust infrastructure, especially fiberisation of existing towers to 80-85% to handle the huge data traffic. “All these small cells being put up will have to be practically 100% on fiber from day one and there will have to be a big augmentation of interstate, intrastate and intracity optic fiber networks. The infrastructure needed for 5G will be a very different magnitude than what was needed for 4G.”

But apart from fiberisation, there are other hurdles as well before 5G sees the light of the day in India.

“Fiberisation undoubtedly is one of the key requirements for successful deployment of 5G. However, given the mammoth growth of data usage, and more so with the upcoming deployment of 5G, fiberisation alone would not be adequate to serve the infrastructure requirements of the massive networks in play,” TV Ramachandran, president, Broadband India Forum (BIF), said.

High spectrum cost is one of the biggest challenges for the industry whose debt burden has grown as a result of the high cost of spectrum acquisition and the demands of network upgrades, Purushothaman added.

Right of Way policy is another big hurdle for deployment of towers and laying down fiber. “We have worked towards aligning the RoW rules with the Indian Telegraphy RoW rules 2016 and were successful in many states. 33 States/UTs have notified their Right of Way policies in alignment with the RoW Rules, 2016. Only select cities like Delhi, Gujarat and the union territory of Daman and Diu still remain unaligned with Telegraphy RoW rules 2016,” Kochhar said.

Aiming to explore new ways of infrastructure deployment, telecom regulator TRAI has issued a consultation paper on the “Use of street furniture for small cell and aerial fiber deployment”. Street furniture like utility poles, billboards, lamp posts, traffic signals, and public structures like gazebos, bus stops etc. provide utility services to city dwellers but with little or no change, they can be utilized to mount small cells and aerial fibers for providing telecom services as well.

Small cells could be one way to solve infrastructure issues. “These are very densely packed small Base Transceiver Station (BTS) which can serve up to a few thousand users in a sq. km area. These would need to be housed on public street furniture viz. electricity poles, bus stands, neon signs, etc. The number of small cells required for densifying 5G networks is 5-10 times higher in comparison to those required for 4G networks,” Ramachandran said.

The 5G network infrastructure would need to support up to 10 times more bandwidth than what 4G infrastructure currently supports.

TR Dua, director general, DIPA said key government programs such as BharatNet and smart cities will add to the demand of fiber deployment, necessitating 100% tower fiberisation. To achieve this, the cables would have to be laid at nearly 3.6 times the current speed, up from the existing average of 350 km a day to over 1,251 km a day.

“Fiberisation rests at the heart of 5G. Fiberized backhaul will be key with small cells becoming an important part of the 5G rollout. This approach will help deliver enhanced end-user experiences by strengthening data transfer speeds and negating the need for devices to compete for bandwidth,” Dua said.

Way forward
If 4G was about speeds and feeds, 5G will be about creating experiences, giving telecom service providers a whole new set of options and revenue streams.However, much would also depend on the spectrum pricing and infrastructure roll out.

5G will have a successful roll-out if we simplify procedures for small cell deployment on street furniture. It is a cost-effective solution that will provide a ready-made environment for 5G network roll-out that is critical to facilitating seamless network connectivity across India, Kochhar said adding RoW needs immediate attention as well.

“5G has the potential to connect the next billion users and radically alter the Internet’s economy. It will be a flexible network that can adapt to changing industry and consumer demands for speed, reach, and capacity. Service providers will need to enable network densification and convergence, as well as build a strong backbone of fiber-rich networks, to build a viable 5G network architecture,” Purushothaman said. CrowdPulp

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