Bharti Airtel looks to make India “truly broadband” TextStart By

Bharti Airtel looks to make India “truly broadband”
By Jason Patterson
Bharti Airtel launched its LTE TDD services in April of this year over broadband
wireless access (BWA) spectrum, making it the first and only operator in India to
utilize this technology. Jagbir Singh (CTO & Director, Network Services Group,
Airtel India & South Asia) recently sat down with WinWin to discuss the latest trends
in the Indian telecom industry and how they have motivated the operator to press
forward into LTE.
A billion mobile users
WinWin: What is the wireless technology roadmap for the Indian telecom sector?
Singh: Presently, the Indian telecom sector is undergoing a major transformation. The
last decade has seen an exponential growth of mobile users from a few million to near
a billion today. This growth was driven by a latent demand for voice traffic. We are
now moving from a voice-only network to a “voice also” network which will see huge
consumption of data volumes, adoptions of new applications & content-rich services,
and a bigger penetration of smartphones. Translating this to wireless technology, this
will mean a service-aware network that is elastic for varying customer needs, and is
flatter with highly-scalable backhaul capabilities.
Given the spectrum pricing and the infrastructure required for backhaul, the roadmap
for the Indian telecom sector is going to be a mix of technologies serving the varying
needs of the customer. Scarcity of spectrum will cause a significant migration towards
more localized networks such as femtocells, picos, and Wi-Fi. This will also require
an infinitely expandable wired backhaul that feeds into the core network. The service
providers will strive to serve the customer with the technology that is most spectrally
efficient and that can adapt to the customer requirements. How to manage the
seamless movement of customers across technologies is also another challenge that
the industry will need to address.
WinWin: In what ways do you think regulators can drive mobile broadband forward
in India?
Singh: The key requirements for mobile broadband are the availability of spectrum at
affordable rates and the availability of backhaul infrastructure to carry large amounts
of data traffic. Rational spectrum pricing & regulation simplicity for issues like ROW
(Right of Way), as well as infrastructure sharing for both passive & active elements,
would be the key drivers for broadband growth.
Laying and maintaining multi-terabyte fiber backhaul networks is a huge investment
and is also inevitable. The stakeholders have yet to reach an agreement that can
contain the costs in this area. Possibilities could include formation of consortiums
similar to those existing in the international arena or formation of a
government-funded subsidy similar to the Universal System Obligation Fund (an
Indian mandate that levies telco revenues) for taking connectivity to upcountry
locations. As far as ROW is concerned, there are no pan-India guidelines and every
municipality and state government makes decisions for its own reasons. However, this
impacts the national agenda of “connecting the unconnected,” so there is a need to
consolidate the laws around ROW.
WinWin: How would you envisage the mobile broadband landscape over the next 2-3
years in India?
Singh: As per recently published results, mobile data traffic in India is up by 54
percent in the first half of 2012. With more than 100 million Internet users as of today,
the growth of data consumption is going to be exponential both in terms of number of
users and usage per customer.
Also, the National Telecom Policy 2012 envisages “broadband for all” at a minimum
download speed of 2Mbps. With the way smartphone adoption, data usage, and app
adoption trends are moving, it seems that very soon even 2Mbps is not going to be
enough, especially for early adopters of technology in major cities.
Ready or not for LTE?
WinWin: As the market leader in India and the world’s fifth-largest carrier, how is
Bharti Airtel contributing to LTE TDD ecosystem development?
Singh: We are a founding member and active participant in the GTI (Global TD-LTE
Initiative) forum, through which we keep meeting and exchanging knowledge with
our peers from across the globe. Also, as the first operator to launch the service in
India, we are leading the way in bringing advanced technologies to developing
countries in an affordable manner. We are also engaging with device and chip
manufacturers to influence the availability of affordable devices for our customers.
WinWin: How do you foresee LTE TDD developing on a global scale vis-à-vis LTE
Singh: Globally, the choice of technology by operators is mainly governed by the
relevance of technology with respect to spectrum availability. Since both FDD and
TDD are at a very nascent stage of tech maturity, I believe that the respective
geographies will drive the evolution of both FDD and TDD in parallel on a
medium-term horizon.
As of now, both the technologies seem to have gathered equal momentum and
operators worldwide are selecting either of them based on the spectrum they manage
to acquire and the overall ecosystem development in their country/region.
WinWin: Given that 3G is still in its infancy in India, do you think the Indian market
is ready for 4G?
Singh: The GSMA predicts that by 2016 India will be the second largest wireless
broadband market. This is not unnatural, as fixed broadband penetration is not good
enough in India due to several factors like poor copper coverage, high cost of laying
the infrastructure, etc. This pent up demand for data, especially in the youth and
corporate segments, will be a big driver towards growth of data for a mobile
broadband bearer. With a limited 3G spectrum, it is only natural that a more scalable
option is explored that can seamlessly handle this growth.
From a technology perspective, India has adopted 3G a little later than the rest of the
world, which has the advantage of creating a network with tried & tested technology.
Also, 4G, as a technology, is rapidly being adopted in other markets and has obvious
advantages of efficiency and scale. Also, like I mentioned earlier, all the technologies
will have to coexist to enhance spectral efficiency.
An uphill climb
WinWin: How will Bharti balance/prioritize 3G and BWA (LTE TDD) network
investment in the short-to-medium-term?
Singh: In the recent past, India has been moving very fast on the digitization curve;
this fact highlights the growth potential for data services, especially mobile broadband
services. The Indian user is just getting to know the power of mobile broadband with
the advent of 3G services. Given the limited spectrum available for 3G services in
India, LTE TDD technology, which can utilize alternate spectrum, is an obvious way
LTE TDD, as a technology, is not as mature as 3G and to tap the full potential of this
technology, it makes sense to start deploying it in a controlled manner, not only to
validate the capabilities, but also to influence the evolution path which is suited to
growing markets like India. With increasing urbanization and mobility in
metropolitan areas, very soon even the typical 3G speeds will not suffice. We plan to
create a layered architecture in the metros with coexistent 2G-3G-LTE-Wi-Fi mesh
WinWin: What has been Bharti Airtel’s strategy on the LTE TDD network rollout
Singh: LTE is one of the cornerstones when it comes to true convergence of network
architecture and topology, the best of both wireless and wireline architecture, and a
flatter and more scalable transport network with ubiquitous radio coverage augmented
by a focused microcell mesh that pushes the limits of the network closer to the user.
Airtel is placed at a very advantageous position by virtue of having a significant
footprint in the wireline domain which most of the operators lack. LTE rollout would
marry this footprint seamlessly into the greater wireless architecture, thereby creating
a world class network capable of providing a “truly broadband” user experience.
WinWin: What key challenges have Bharti Airtel encountered in network rollout and
how has it tackled them?
Singh: Readiness and maturity in a robust product line for LTE TDD is the foremost
challenge at present. This fact, coupled with a lack of available devices and
challenges around ROW for scalable backhaul architecture, are some issues that we
continue to face as we expand our LTE rollout.
As is the case with any new technology, the learning curve is very steep and the pace
of innovation has increased dramatically in the last decade. LTE is being launched
globally in several spectra and FDD/TDD versions; add to this the complexity of
coexistent 2G, 3G and Wi-Fi networks, and you have a continuously evolving
technology landscape, which is a challenge in itself, especially when augmenting a
new technology onto a live network, because you don’t want to disrupt the existing
We underwent detailed interoperability tests in order to ensure minimal glitches in the
launch of 4G services and smooth integration with the existing network. From an
infrastructure point of view, the rollout so far has been relatively less challenging as
compared to the greenfield rollout of 2G since most of our initial 4G sites were
co-located with existing sites. However, the launch of LTE needed a complete
upgrade and modernization of the backhaul system, which meant laying new fiber in
the cities and creating more sites to support microcell layer architecture.
WinWin: What lessons/experiences from 3G service development have Bharti Airtel
found relevant for promoting LTE services?
Singh: Making a heterogeneous network scale, inter-operate, and deliver the requisite
quality of service is a great experience we have picked up from our 3G launch. We
have learned how to connect and manage network elements that cut across a wide
range of technologies, manufacturers, and standards. Handling a disproportionate
amount of data traffic growth is also a good problem to have when it comes to
creating a mobile broadband network.
These lessons will go a long way in establishing a 4G network footprint that is
service-aware, seamlessly managed across vendor ecosystems, and scalable to handle
the data explosion which is about to hit India.
From a business perspective, after the launch of 3G services, the industry has been
facing a “multi-terabit challenge” in which revenues are not growing proportionately
with traffic, unlike what used to happen in the voice business. While the revenues
don’t increase proportionately, the spectrum requirement is proportional to the data
growth and becomes very expensive.
Another critical aspect on which we are working with the regulators and government
agencies is the ROW permissions for laying fiber in the cities. Without a robust and
scalable backhaul infrastructure, it will not be possible to deliver the speeds that the
customers expect when they adopt technologies like LTE.
WinWin: How does Bharti Airtel position its LTE service and what will be the key
factors driving LTE uptake in the country?
Singh: The future of telecommunication is data and this is an investment in that
direction. We are fully convinced that the growth in data is bound to happen and this
platform is an enabler for data to take off in a big way.
As of now, we are delivering 4G services via CPE (customer premises equipment)
and dongle. Apart from the availability of the service, the other important factors that
will drive 4G uptake in the country are the content and device ecosystem.
WinWin: How would you evaluate Huawei’s skills as a vendor and as a partner for
BWA (LTE TDD) network rollout?
Singh: Huawei has been our partner in launching 3G and then 4G in Bangalore and I
would say that overall, the experience has been quite satisfactory. Airtel has also
awarded Huawei projects for building a nationwide high-capacity expressway. In
addition to this, Huawei has also supplied packet core for our network. I would rate
my overall experience of working with Huawei as satisfactory.