Reliance Jio (RJio) might lag its chief Indian rivals in the 4G network stakes, but on fiber it claims pole position.
While Reliance Jio 's fiber network extends across 270,000 kilometers, archrival Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL)'s covers just 210,155, according to company data. Idea Cellular Ltd. and Reliance Communications Ltd. , India's third- and fourth-biggest mobile operators, have 200,000 and 93,200 kilometers respectively. With plans to roll out another 30,000 kilometers of fiber in the coming months, RJio hopes it can turn its growing fiber advantage into 4G gains later this year.
India is witnessing a huge spike in data consumption as the service providers roll out both 3G and 4G networks. But fiber backhaul is needed to support this growing demand. Having decided to focus its business on providing data connectivity, RJio is naturally determined to have as much fiber as possible. It has already invested about $19 billion in this area.
Fiber will also play a critical role in RJio's plans to deploy LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) and 5G services in future. Although Bharti Airtel has already deployed LTE-A in Kerala, RJio believes it can differentiate itself by offering higher-quality services as data and the Internet of Things become increasingly important in the Indian market.
Existing operators in India have shied away from fiber deployment mainly because of "right of way" issues. Telcos have had to cough up huge sums just to secure permission to deploy fiber in the ground.
Besides extending its fiber footprint, RJio has also deployed nearly 90,000 base stations and 50,000 small cells, which would be used to enhance coverage inside the premises. In the long term, the company plans to have close to 150,000 small cells. (See RJio's Big Small Cells Vision.)
It remains unclear whether Bharti Airtel is plotting a small cells deployment or not, but the operator's network assets are clearly not to be underestimated. It currently maintains some 105,465 3G and 4G base stations across the country. It has also announced an investment of $9 billion to upgrade and modernize its network over the next three years. (See Bharti's $9B Network Splurge in India.)
– Gagandeep Kaur, Contributing Editor, special to Light Reading