India's biggest operator is to embark on a major network upgrade as mobile broadband competition intensifies.

Gagandeep Kaur, Contributing Editor

November 30, 2015

4 Min Read
Bharti's $9B Network Splurge in India

Bharti Airtel, India's biggest operator, has unveiled plans to spend around 600 billion Indian rupees (US$8.9 billion) over the next three years on improving the quality of its network.

Called Project Leap, the investment is being touted as one of the largest capex commitments over the 2015 to 2016 period and is expected to be transformative for Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL).

"We are confident that Project Leap will help Airtel build a smart and dynamic network that will significantly improve the quality of both voice and data services across the length and breadth of the country," said Gopal Vittal, the managing director and CEO of Bharti Airtel's Indian and South Asian business, in a press release issued by the company.

As part of its initiative, Bharti Airtel plans to deploy more than 70,000 basestations by the end of the current financial year. It also intends to double its presence over the next three years with the rollout of nearly 160,000 basestations. Almost 60% of the company's network is to be capable of providing mobile broadband services by March 2016.

Indeed, the initiative involves the expansion of Bharti Airtel's mobile broadband coverage to all towns in India and more than 250,000 villages by the same date. Within the next three years, the operator hopes to be able to offer mobile broadband services in more than half a million villages. According to its last quarterly results statement, Bharti Airtel currently provides telecom services in 5,126 towns and 464,185 villages. But the operator has come under pressure to launch mobile broadband services in more communities since new entrant Reliance Jio earlier this year announced plans to cover nearly 80% of India's population with a 4G network. (See RJio to Launch 4G in December.)

Along with other established mobile operators, Bharti Airtel has recently taken flak for its network shortcomings, which result in a large number of dropped calls for customers. It hopes to address that problem by deploying more than 100,000 hotspots using a combination of WiFi, small cell and indoor technologies.

Although Bharti Airtel launched 4G services nearly three years ago, it is only now the operator company is going in for a large-scale network deployment, with RJio now likely to introduce its own 4G services in the next three to four months.

As the mobile broadband battle gathers momentum, quality of service could prove critical to the success of one service provider over another. But with RJio looking to offer services at knock-down rates, Bharti Airtel may also need to protect its existing subscriber base and minimize the risks of any defections. (See 4G Drives Telco Capex in India .)

Yet Bharti Airtel is not the only operator investing in network improvements. Nearly two years ago, Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) launched its Project Spring initiative with a view to boosting the availability of mobile broadband services. Idea Cellular Ltd. , India's third-largest service provider, has also recently announced an increase in capital expenditure on network expansion and modernization.

Much like RJio, which already claims to have installed 250,000 kilometers of fiber, Bharti Airtel is looking to fixed-line infrastructure to bolster service quality, flagging plans to deploy around 550,000 kilometers of domestic and international fiber.

Bharti Airtel's legacy systems are also up for an overhaul as part of Project Leap. "Airtel will swap its legacy networks and basestations over a three-period and replace them with smaller, more compact and efficient technologies that will significantly improve customer experience," said the company. Further, these new base stations will use single radio access network (RAN) technology to manage multiple airwaves.

Besides investing in wireless improvements, Bharti Airtel is eager to modernize the broadband network over which it provides residential services. Bharti Airtel says it will upgrade its copper-line connections with vectoring technology, which allows operators to provide high-speed broadband services without making costly investments in fiber.

Meanwhile, some of the $9 billion investment will be spent in areas such as self-optimizing networks (SON), customer experience management (CEM) and software-defined networks (SDN). That is perhaps unsurprising given that RJio's network is believed to be all-IP, making it easier for the operator to take advantage of New IP technologies such as SDN and NFV in future.

Want to know more about 4G LTE? Check out our dedicated 4G LTE content channel here on Light Reading.

On the enterprise side, Bharti Airtel will deploy fiber to the building technology as well as Internet wireless access networks to provide connectivity for SME customers.

The company has also indicated it will invest in environmentally friendly products like compact basestations and small cells, which it hopes will help it to reduce its carbon footprint by as much as 70% on a per-unit basis over the next three years.

In an effort to increase its engagement with customers, the operator will launch a portal that allows subscribers to monitor the progress of Project Leap on a real-time basis.

— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Gagandeep Kaur

Contributing Editor

With more than a decade of experience, Gagandeep Kaur Sodhi has worked for the most prominent Indian communications industry publications including Dataquest, Business Standard, The Times of India, and Voice&Data, as well as for Light Reading. Delhi-based Kaur, who has knowledge of and covers a broad range of telecom industry developments, regularly interacts with the senior management of companies in India's telecom sector and has been directly responsible for delegate and speaker acquisition for prominent events such as Mobile Broadband Summit, 4G World India, and Next Generation Packet Transport Network.

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