Deployment of optic fibre cable (OFC) as a transport layer is essentially needed to create future telecom networks capable to handle ever-increasing data load. “There is a huge potential and opportunity and a lot of fibre and policy frameworks has to happen and it’s time for India to make that happen,” Balesh Sharma, chief executive of Vodafone Idea Limited (VIL) said. Sharma also said that the industry should create ecosystem since the capacity is growing high while latency going low in the new 5G era. “When we look at networks of future, we should also look at solutions such as virtualisation. Transport layer which can be fiber is required in addition to software,” Sterlite Tech group chief executive Anand Agarwal said, adding that India would leapfrog in new technology adoption.
India that currently lags behind the global average, has close to 22% of the fibre-connected mobile infrastructure, and the government, as a part of the national policy, has already announced setting up of the National Fibre Authority (NFA) to accelerate fibre deployment in the country. Once cities are entirely covered by fibre, points of presence, according to Agarwal, should be deployed by telcos to offer next generation technology based services. The Pune-based company feels that with Internet speed going up and ever-growing capacity, it was imperative to simplify the entire network and telcos should look at transport layer.
Deployment of fiber network
While pure-play telecom companies are at the forefront of driving optic fibre cable (OFC) deployment in India, the telecom arms of key PSUs in the railways, power, and oil and gas sectors are also undertaking significant fibre network roll-outs across the country.
Although the OFC networks rolled out by RailTel, Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (Powergrid) and GailTel are aimed at addressing their in-house connectivity requirements, the companies have been using them for commercial purposes as well. Thus, an OFC network serves as a link for data and control in the oil and gas sector; helps in signalling and tracking in the railways; and supports monitoring and control in the power sector. In addition, RailTel and Powergrid are involved in the government’s ambitious BharatNet project and other initiatives. RailTel has also entered the Wi-Fi space in a big way and the roll-out is being supported through OFC in the backhaul. Going forward, peaking demand for high speed broadband services and the evolving fibre-to-the-x space will create several opportunities for these players to gain from their existing OFC strength.
A look at the current status of OFC deployments by the three national utilities, the challenges faced in rolling out these networks and their future plans in these areas…
RailTel Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Indian Railways (IR), is one of the largest neutral telecom infrastructure providers in the country. The company operates a pan-Indian optic fibre network with exclusive right of way (RoW) along railway tracks across 7,000 railway stations. The total track length of IR’s network is around 65,000 route km (rkm), of which RailTel’s OFC network is spread across 44,500 rkm. Further, the company’s OFC connectivity spans more than 4,400 railway stations (including over 600 stations on long haul and 3,800 stations on short haul). In addition, the company has a dense wavelength division multiplexing network that is spread across 25,500 km.
Role in national OFC projects
Besides its involvement in setting up a communications network for IR, the company has been an integral part of the government’s nation-building information and communication technology projects. It is one of the implementing agencies for the BharatNet project. Under the first phase of the project, it has to set up 19,000 rkm of OFC in 8,679 gram panchayats across 10 states/union territories. It is also part of a project funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund to enhance connectivity in the north-eastern states. Under the project, the company is involved in laying 12,000 rkm of OFC in six states in the Northeast. In addition, RailTel is the lead creator of the National Knowledge Network, which aims to connect campuses of the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and other research and development institutions in the country through a high bandwidth network.
Apart from being involved in government initiatives, RailTel has undertaken certain independent initiatives. The key among these is the station Wi-Fi project, which the company is implementing in collaboration with Google. The project aims to provide Wi-Fi facilities at more than 700 railway stations under the A1, A and B categories. So far, RailTel has commissioned Wi-Fi services at 119 stations, and plans to cover 400 stations by 2018 and provide Wi-Fi services at 200 railway stations located in rural areas. Another key initiative taken by the company is the railway display network project with the aim to set up more than 100,000 networked displays at over 2,175 railway stations. According to RailTel, these outdoor LED displays would be connected to a single delivery platform and would display train information and coach information, etc.
RailTel is also involved in a video surveillance system project, which aims to cover 983 railway stations under the A1, A, B and C categories through surveillance services. Another initiative taken by the company is RailWire, with the aim to provide broadband services to small and medium enterprises as well as households in collaboration with domestic cable operators and managed service providers. As per RailTel, RailWire services are currently subscribed to by 105,000 customers in 416 villages and 2,800 schools in Kerala and more than 750 gram panchayats in Madhya Pradesh.
Issues and challenges
While RailTel has been making concerted efforts to expand the coverage of its services, there are certain issues facing the company. According to RailTel, competition from other OFC players poses a key challenge and it needs to constantly innovate and add value to its offerings. Further, obtaining RoW for establishing OFC networks on non-railway routes is difficult and costly. Moreover, unplanned development work carried out by local bodies, public works departments and utilities is a key challenge for rolling out OFC networks.
Powergrid is responsible for managing the country’s power transmission network. The utility has leveraged its transmission infrastructure to provide low-cost telecom services. It currently has 90,523 km of OFC network across the country. The company has used optical ground wire (OPGW) technology to roll out its fibre network. Further, Powergrid has used OPGW with 24 fibre cables to replace earth wires in its transmission lines.
Issues and challenges
The company faces certain challenges in deploying OPGW in these live-line conditions. These include limited availability of resources for the installation of OPGW lines, which requires specialised tools and trained manpower; very few indigenous suppliers of OPGW hardware and accessories; and absence of adequate testing facilities for OPGW in the country.
Going forward, Powergrid aims to deploy OPGW in all its upcoming transmission lines of 132 kV and above, as a part of its communication strategy. In addition, the company is planning to create standard OPGW designs for its upcoming transmission lines and encourage OPGW manufacturing in India. Meanwhile, the roll-out of 48,458 km of fibre is currently under implementation, of which 23,771 km of OFC is under execution while 24,687 km is under award.
GailTel is the telecom and telemetry services arm of GAIL (India) Limited, the largest state-owned natural gas processing and distribution company in India. GailTel’s current OFC network spans around 12,000 km and has a capacity of 2.5 Gbps. The company has its presence in more than 175 locations across the country. Its key clients include Vodafone India, Bharti Airtel, Tikona, Tata Communications, Powergrid and RailTel.
Issues and challenges
Like other players, GailTel has faced a variety of challenges in operating its OFC network. These include low profit margins, lack of policy guidelines on leasing of dark fibre, extensive damage to fibre cables due to road construction, absence of an integrated nodal agency to monitor the execution activities of various utilities, high costs of obtaining permissions for rolling out OFC networks in cities and near railway crossings, and absence of a utility corridor for trunk and last-mile connectivity.
Despite these challenges, GailTel has planned an addition of about 5,200 km of OFC network over the next five years across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. Further, the company is preparing to lay 48 fibre cables along some of GAIL’s new pipelines to cater to captive and business requirements. GAIL is also exploring a partnership with service providers for sharing fibre and ducts on a long-term basis.
Fibre networks is essential for 5G
The vision of a 5G network is usually that of an intricate wireless technology offering high data speeds and responsiveness on our mobile phones. Integral to the success of 5G technology is the extensive optic fibre cable (OFC) network that runs underground—5G’s characteristic higher data speeds and throughputs are greatly influenced by these heavy-duty networks that impact both the wireless side and wireline side of the infrastructure. In fact, 5G’s formidable network performance goals are heavily predicated on a massive availability of fibre connectivity, to cell sites and beyond.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates ongoing capital investments related to fibre infrastructure will reach a staggering $144.2 billion between 2014 and 2019, in its “Trends in Telecommunication Reform 2017” report. A huge explosion of data, especially video, flowing from tomorrow’s 5G radios and base transceiver stations (BTS) is the primary driver for this immense capital investment into fibre infrastructure deployments.
Mobile data traffic is growing rapidly. According to the Cisco Visual Networking Index, mobile data traffic has grown 4,000-fold over the past 10 years, and almost 400 million-fold over the past 15 years. In 2015 alone, 563 million mobile devices and connections were added to networks. All this usage puts immense pressure on our current wireless networks that are not built to withstand this level of user demand, thus the need for the next generation of wireless networks. So, since wireless is clearly the wave of the future, where does that leave fibre networks? As a matter of fact, we will see a growing demand for a greater optic fibre network to support 5G.
Traditionally, 2G and 3G mobile networks used microwave wireless backhaul to connect cell sites to the nearest mobile switching centre (MSC) over the air. Although this legacy architecture served the industry well for several decades, the advent of 4G and increased data flow has already triggered change. Backhaul upgrades are taking place with legacy copper- or microwave-based cell sites being replaced with IP-based transport over fibre. This provides unlimited capacity to cater to the humongous amount of data being generated by the 4G LTE and LTE-advanced access technologies. These backhaul networks should be suitably leveraged by future 5G networks.
To improve coverage, capacity and overall Quality of Experience (QoE) of mobile users, telecommunications service providers (TSPs) are adopting small cells which strategically place the BTS closer to the users. Small cells can be backhauled either over copper, microwave or fibre. Fibre-based small cell is preferred wherever possible as fibre is scalable, secure and most cost-effective. However, in locations where deploying fibre is either not viable or feasible, they could be served by a number of wireless Gigabit backhaul options, such as E and V band, satellite and HAPS-based options in remote and far flung areas of the rural hinterland.
Demand drivers for OFC
The optic fibre cable (OFC) market in India is on an upward growth trajectory owing to increasing broadband deployments in the backhaul and last mile access networks, and government initiatives such as BharatNet and Network for Spectrum projects. The major users of OFC are telecom service providers, infrastructure providers, internet service providers, multiple-system operators, cable TV operators, defence agencies, and PSUs in sectors such as power, railways, and oil and gas. All of these have specific connectivity requirements. As per industry estimates, OFC is set to become a $420 million industry in India by 2020.
In India, the demand for OFC is being driven by the burgeoning data traffic, which can be attributed to a considerable decline in data tariffs; increased penetration of affordable smartphones, tablets and other internet-enabled devices; and the availability of regional content in vernacular languages. In addition, consumers are increasingly shifting towards video-driven applications such as video-on-demand and high definition television, which is also fuelling data demand.
With the growing pressure on wireless networks, it has become imperative to undertake greater investments in fibre infrastructure. Fibre offers several benefits over other mediums such as virtually unlimited capacity, low cost of ownership over the project’s entire life cycle and the ability to support multiple technologies. Further, investments in OFC networks are being driven by the proliferation of next-generation broadband technologies such as long term evolution, fixed last-mile connectivity based on fibre (FTTx) and cable TV digitisation.
Telecom operators have started exploring the OFC network sharing model in order to optimally utilise the existing data networks and facilitate the expansion of data-intensive 3G and 4G networks. Further, deploying a mix of optical fibre with wireless technologies to provide seamless high speed and high capacity broadband solutions in both dense urban and rural areas has emerged as a key trend in this space. For instance, operators have started using wireless fibre extension technologies based on millimetre wave in the E-band to carry traffic from the optical node and deliver it to a village cluster, where the last-mile access can be provided with the help of Wi-Fi.