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Innovative Approach: Virtualisation can empower operators to expand 4G into rural areas

April 13, 2018

Innovative Approach: Virtualisation can ...
Rajesh Mishra, Co-Founder, President and Chief Technology Officer, Parallel Wireless

The Indian telecom market witnessed a paradigm shift in data consumption during 2017. The stupendous growth in the 4G subscriber base and data consumption has possibly been the most significant trend of the year. 4G data consumption recorded an overall increase of 144 per cent over the previous year, with 4G traffic accounting for as much as 82 per cent of the total data traffic as of December 2017. According to the recently released Nokia Mobile Broadband Index report 2018, 4G data usage touched 11 GB per user per month during 2017.

While intense competition in the market led to rock-bottom tariffs, aggressive 4G network roll-out and a dramatic decline in the prices of 4G-enabled devices ensured that more and more people were able to access these services. The development of video and locally relevant content also contributed to the overall growth of 4G traffic in the country. Thus, access to high-speed and affordable 4G internet led to an overall increase in the appetite for data in the country.

This growth in the 4G market calls for operators to make some fundamental changes in their networks. This is because the traditional systems, which were built for voice and not data, are not capable of handling this dramatic growth in mobile broadband.

The surge in 4G data traffic was led by Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL), which disrupted the market by providing free voice services for life and free 4G data services during the first six months of the launch of its services. Being a pure-play 4G greenfield service provider, RJIL has an all-IP network while the incumbent players are still in the process of modernising their traditional networks.

The incumbent operators have adopted various strategies to deal with the data tsunami. Bharti Airtel, India’s largest service provider, has launched Project Leap to modernise its network in order to address evolving market demands. The operator has also implemented carrier aggregation and conducted a trial for massive multiple-input, multiple-output technology to manage the growing pressure on networks. Other operators like Vodafone India and Idea Cellular have also conducted similar trials and are exploring new technologies to transform their network infrastructure to enhance their operational efficiency and bring down the cost of network management.

While RJIL offers voice services through voice over long term evolution (VoLTE), other service providers are in the process of implementing VoLTE solutions to provide high definition voice services to subscribers at cost-effective tariffs.

Rural India can contribute to telecom operator revenue

While 4G growth is noteworthy, it also needs to be acknowledged that it is limited to the metros, and Category A and B circles. Rural India remains disconnected from the 4G and mobile broadband revolution to a large extent. While urban teledensity has crossed 100 per cent, rural teledensity in India hovers around 56 per cent only. Therefore, the digital divide must be addressed to ensure that people from all walks of life are able to use broadband for their growth.

Service providers face a dilemma where rural expansion is concerned. Since urban revenues are stagnating, they would like to expand in rural areas to drive up revenues. However, low ARPUs in rural India mean that operators find it tough to justify the high cost of network deployment and management. The return on investment would take a much longer time in the rural market as compared to the densely populated urban market. Difficult terrain coupled with uneven population distribution adds to the challenge of expanding the network in the rural areas.

However, ignoring the rural market is hardly a solution. With rising aspirations and exposure to rural users are now aware of the vast potential of 4G mobile broadband in transforming their lives. Besides, rural consumers have evolved and are ready to experiment and spend a little more than earlier. All this is apparent from the relentless expansion of fast-moving consumer goods in the rural markets. Experts agree that there is a latent demand for mobile broadband services in the countryside and it can be a significant revenue generator for operators, if handled intelligently.

What can operators do to address the rural 4G demand?

Operators usually try to replicate the urban model of network deployment in the rural sector. However, this strategy is not likely to succeed. The rural market is vastly different from the urban setting in terms of population spread and usage. A cost-effective network deployment, which entails low maintenance cost and does not compromise on quality of service, is required in the country’s hinterland.

The adoption of innovative technologies can ensure that rural users are able to access networks and benefit from high speed 4G services. There is also a push from the government to provide 4G or high speed broadband services in the rural market. Digital India is one such initiative, which was launched with the vision of connecting the unconnected.

The good news is that operators can adopt new technology concepts such as virtualisation to provide ultra high speed 4G rural connectivity while safeguarding their profitability. Operators across the globe are adopting virtualisation to bring down costs and reduce the dependence on heavy hardware. Further, virtualisation provides the much-needed agility and flexibility to the network and helps in the faster roll-out of new services.

Indian operators can also utilise the modernised version of 2G technology, which incorporates the benefits of network function virtualisation (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN). It consumes less power and covers much more area, making it apt for the rural segment. Further, it can be easily managed by the local community, thus bringing down the cost of network management. Operators can leverage NFV and SDN to cost efficiently expand in the rural market. Since it is powered by latest concepts, it empowers service providers to smoothly migrate to 4G whenever the market is ready for it.

Going forward, virtualisation will also allow operators to transform from communication service providers to digital service providers. It will open up a host of new opportunities for them. It will also pave the way for the upcoming 5G technology. Indian operators have already started experimenting with virtualisation, and now it is time to leverage the concept to meet the mobile broadband requirement of the rural market.

Leveraging global experience

The problems faced by Indian operators are hardly unique. Service providers across the globe have struggled with rural expansion. Several carriers have adopted innovative technologies and strategies to meet the requirements of customers in the countryside.

A case in point is Telefonica, one of the largest service providers in the world. The operator recently completed a pilot based on programmable and open radio access network (RAN) to connect remote areas in Latin America. As part of its Internet Para Todos initiative, Telefonica used the converged wireless system (CWS) and the HetNet Gateway to provide data and voice services over both 3G and 4G networks to remotely located rural communities. CWS is a base station built with commodity off-the-shelf that brings together 3G and 4G access in the same form factor. On the other hand, the HetNet Gateway is a software-enabled open RAN architecture that simplifies network management by using standard-based and open interfaces between various network components. Together, these components significantly bring down the cost of network deployment in the rural segment while at the same time ensuring faster implementation and easier control of the network. Telefonica is just one example of an operator effectively using new technologies to tackle the long-standing problem of rural connectivity.

As operators in India embark on a mission to offer high speed 4G connectivity to rural consumers, the time is now right for them to leverage virtualisation and other innovative approaches.


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