Mobile services

Indian Telcos to Ramp Up Network Investment in Next 2 Years

Following several rounds of consolidation, India's telecom industry is poised for a major expansion of network infrastructure. Each of the top three service providers is now planning to extend coverage to address a surge in data consumption.

India currently has around 450,000 basestations, but the big service providers aim to increase this number to 850,000 by the end of 2020. The goals of that expansion are to meet the ever-growing demand for bandwidth, ensure spectrum is used more efficiently and improve quality of service.

"The three main operators -- Reliance Jio, Airtel and Vodafone-Idea -- have publicly announced their plans for the next two years," said Ryan Perera, the head of optical equipment maker Ciena Corp. (NYSE: CIEN)'s Indian business. "So when you combine them the number of basestations is going to go up to between 840,000 and 850,000, which is almost a doubling in a span of two and a half years. We see investment of around $1.5 billion, according to our estimates."

Telcos seem likely to experiment with and introduce various new radio technologies as they expand their networks, including LTE-Advanced, 5G and cloud RAN (C-RAN) technologies. Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL) has already made investments in massive MIMO (which stands for multiple input, multiple out) to boost spectral efficiency, and other telcos are experimenting with it.

"The increase in basestations will require more fiber connectivity and place huge pressures on backhaul networks," says Sajeet Shivashankaran, president of the Indian business of ECI Telecom, another equipment vendor. "As a result, operators remain under pressure to do more with less, and are looking to lower cost per bit by way of optimized hardware for higher capacity and more automation via software-defined networking -- and all with the least possible disruption to their existing network."

This growth is not without challenges, however. Currently, less than 15% of Indian basestations are connected to fiber networks. The rest use microwave technology, but there is concern that microwave will not be able to support the massive growth in broadband usage. Unfortunately, the rollout of fiber is a costly process.

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Right-of-way (RoW) restrictions in India could also hold up deployment. "RoW continues to be a nagging issue in India," says Deepak Kumar, the founder analyst of market-research company B&M Nxt. "Telcos need to get permission from multiple government agencies to lay down fiber, which impacts the timelines of projects. Indian telcos are also cash strapped and laying fiber takes both time and money."

As Kumar points out, generating a decent return on investment could take much longer with fiber than with radio technologies. And the industry is still under a mountain of debt. "All of this means the telcos might continue to go slow and be selective with fiberization," he says. "The focus would be business districts and clusters, as well as urban residential sprawls that are socioeconomically well off."

— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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