Ever since Mukesh Ambani rolled out his telecom juggernaut – Reliance Jio – in September 2016, consumers of mobile internet in India have had a great time. India has leapfrogged from a lowly 155th position in mobile broadband penetration to the world’s largest mobile data-consuming nation in just one year. In just six months of Jio’s launch, data consumption in India went from 20 crore GB to 120 crore GB per month and has been multiplying ever since.

Data usage

According to a Nokia MbIT 2018 report, 4G consumption per user (there are 420 million of them) reached 11 GB per month in December 2017, of which video content contributed up to 65 per cent of the total mobile data traffic. While this massive uptake of data has been driven by smartphones, optical fibre networks are crucial for securing India’s broadband future. As data consumption keeps growing exponentially and with new technologies such as 5G on the way, wireless platforms will not be enough to meet the demands of bandwidth-guzzling consumers.

“It will be foolish to think that only wireless can cater to the growing data needs of the country. We need an optical fibre backbone to carry this large amounts of data. If you look at US and China, they have a massive fibre network, in addition to a strong mobile network. In this context, BharatNet is crucial for our broadband ambitions,” says TV Ramachandran, President, Broadband India Forum.

Data traffic is set to triple over the next five years on higher number of connected devices, increasing video consumption, and surging data consumption per unit, led by higher data speeds. While mobile networks are constrained by spectrum availability and coverage issues, optical fibre has fewer restrictions.

“To deliver internet reliably and deliver bandwidth-hungry applications such as live streaming coaching classes, fibre is the most suitable medium for carrying high amount of data over long distances,” said an industry analyst. While the case for fibre optics has existed since the late 1990s when companies such as HFCL started laying fibre, the economies of scale seem to make sense only now. Fibre investment in India has been low as the telecom operators relied on 2G technology for voice penetration and data. China consumed 13.7 times more fibre than India in 2016.

That is gradually changing. “Since the last decade, there has been a significant increase in internet usage, and with a higher proliferation of mobile phones, video content and IoT coming in, the demand for fibre will go up further,” said Bala Malladi, CEO, Atria Convergence Technologies.

This uptake seems to have driven the economics of fibre, which was “pricey” in comparison to internet provided through cable operators such as Hathway. While laying down fibre was one aspect, the challenge arose in maintenance. There was no convincing case to use these services at affordable prices, especially for retail consumers, according to a senior executive from a fibre broadband company. However, in the past three years, India’s fibre consumption has surged at 27 per cent CAGR, primarily due to falling prices. Higher fibre deployment and attractive pricing by players such as RJio have altered the scenario. BharatNet expanding network has also helped.

Sanjay Nayak, MD and CEO, Tejas Networks, pointed out that globally there is a robust demand for networking equipment.

Massive demand for data has forced traditional telcos to relook at their business. Earlier, telcos would look at wireless, whereas cable operators and fibre optic players took fixed broadband to homes; now the silos are being broken. Telcos are looking towards fibre so that they can own the consumer end-to-end, said Narayanan Rajagopalan, President, LaMarca Group, which runs the Wi-Fi service MarcaTel. Some baby steps have been taken by telcos with deeper pockets.

RJio has acquired assets of RCom’s optical fibre cable network and in i2i submarine cable system. As players strengthen their optic fibre capacity, topography remains a challenge. Industry is trying to overcome this by using Wi-Fi. Once the fibre terminates at the gram panchayat-level, with the help of Wi-Fi hotspots, citizens can obtain essential services, says Rajagopalan.

As the pipe gets laid, questions are being raised on services that can be provided using fibre broadband. Currently, services seem entertainment-centred, with some live-streaming education thrown in; that will change as entrepreneurs will find a way out once the network is laid out, said Malladi.