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India's Airtel awards massive network deal to Nokia

Indian telco giant Bharti Airtel has handed a massive contract to Finnish equipment maker Nokia for the rollout of a single radio access network (SRAN) in some of India's busiest communities. While the value of the deal was not cited in the official statements, it is reportedly worth about $1 billion.

Under the agreement, Nokia will deploy 300,000 radio units in nine circles (service areas) for the expansion of Airtel's 4G network over the next two years. The deployment will be across several spectrum bands, including 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz and 2300MHz. The nine circles seem likely to be those in which Nokia had previously supplied equipment, which, according to media reports, are Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rest of Bengal, Odisha, Mumbai, Maharashtra, Kerala and UP (East).

This announcement comes shortly after Airtel announced a deal with Ceragon for 4G network expansion starting in the first quarter of 2020. Airtel will be using Ceragon's wireless backhaul technology.

India's service providers have witnessed a surge in data traffic as people are forced to stay at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Several organizations have moved to a work-from-home model and schools are using Internet services to conduct online classes, ensuring there is no break in education.

However, Airtel was already under pressure to expand capacity after announcing plans last August to shut down its 3G network by March 2020. This move is expected to lead to a sharp increase in traffic on the 4G network as subscribers are moved from one technology to the other.

"Airtel is looking to increase its network capacity to address growing demand for broadband amidst a sharp rise in data consumption across India," said the company in a press statement. "Airtel is also looking to increase 4G network capacity in urban areas and expand its coverage in rural areas as well as prepare for its future evolution to 5G."

The operator also plans to increase the number of 4G sites across the country to improve its rural coverage and ability to compete against arch-rival Reliance Jio.


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Airtel is not the only service provider upgrading its network. Earlier this month, Vodafone Idea announced it would make investments in new open RAN technologies, using Mavenir as a supplier. That follows trials of open RAN systems by Vodafone Group in other parts of the world.

"Vodafone Idea is building a robust, future ready 4G+ network with latest technology deployments," says Vishant Vora, Vodafone Idea's chief technology officer, in Vodafone's statement. "After having successfully disaggregated the stack of our key core network elements, disaggregating the RAN is a natural next step for us."

The deal with Airtel should take some of the pressure off Nokia, which this week was reported to have lost out on 5G contract awards in China. The Finnish vendor's 5G business previously ran into product problems blamed on the disruption caused by its merger with Alcatel-Lucent, a decision to use costlier 5G components than its rivals and delays at one of its suppliers. (See As Ericsson advances, Nokia's 5G business may be finished in China.)

— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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