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Interview with Idea Cellular’s Anil Tandan

August 10, 2016
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The telecom sector is undergoing significant technological evolution. The launch of 3G/4G services has made it necessary for operators to upgrade their networks, with quality of service (QoS) being a key differentiator. Anil Tandan, chief technology officer, Idea Cellular, shares his views on the evolving telecom technology landscape, network-related challenges and the way forward. Excerpts…


How has the telecom technology landscape changed over the past one year globally as well as in India?

We are living in an era where technological developments are taking place at a very fast pace and long term evolution (LTE) deployments have grown across the world. The launch of LTE by China Mobile has led to rapid growth in the availability of 4G handsets and a drop in prices. Also, consumers are much more aware of the differences between technologies and are using wireless data much more. On the wired side as well, there is greater focus on higher speed and stability, which can be served through GPON-based technologies like FTTx. The business economics of such technologies find less use outside major cities due to the cost of rolling out such technologies.

The world is also looking at 5G and internet of things (IoT) technologies. The specifications for 5G are currently at the finalisation stage and we should see 5G getting launched by 2020. I believe 5G and IoT will significantly change the way we look at cellular networks.

What are the emerging technology solutions on the wireless and fixed network fronts? How will these change the user experience?

With increasing wireless data traffic, various technological solutions are emerging, like small cells and multi-port antennae, which would help operators in catering to the increasing data demand and easing site deployability. These would also help address the hotspot and indoor coverage pockets. The other emerging technologies are self-organising networks (SON) and network function virtualisation (NFV). With networks becoming multi-technology and operators needing to manage subscribers over different technologies, network management and optimisation have become a major operational issue. The implementation of SON solutions will help automate multi-technology networks. Another solution that has become mature enough for deployment is CEM (customer experience management). This solution would proactively help in improving the customer experience. Both these technologies are being deployed by Idea to improve the customer experience on data.

While wireless technologies would serve the mobile needs of consumers, there are also enterprise sectors with high data traffic and multi-service demands that can be served through FTTx services.

How has the uptake of 4G services been and what are the consumption pattern trends?

A major roll-out of 4G has taken place in India only in 2016-17. More and more population is coming under 4G coverage; however, the consumer base is increasing at a moderate pace only. 4G handset prices in India have reached Rs 5,000, an affordable price point for many. The last quarter of 2015-16 saw a huge surge in the purchase of smartphones with 4G capability. This has helped increase the reachability of 4G services. However, even now in most markets, 4G handset penetration is only around 10 per cent. In the coming months, we expect this to increase multi-fold; that’s when the real traffic explosion is expected. The consumption of 4G data services is gradually increasing. Our networks are geared up to take on high data demand on 4G networks.

What will be the biggest data driver in India?

The learning from different markets is that video content is the biggest driving factor for 4G services. We believe that it will be same story in India, with cricket and Bollywood dominating video demand. The biggest driver will be the availability of the services to the masses at affordable rates.

What has been the impact of over-the-top (OTT) players on operators? What is the company’s strategy to deal with growing competition from this segment?

OTT players have impacted the revenues of telecom operators, mainly in the SMS and international long distance voice segments. As long as there are the same parameters for licensing, checks, control and security applicable to OTT players as to other operators, it will be a level playing field for all operators.

Today, consumers are very savvy with apps. We have also launched our app, which will help consumers at various stages of their interaction with the company. These apps can be modified in the future to provide additional services. All the operators are planning to create complimentary OTT apps of their own. As an industry, efforts are being made, with support from the GSM Association and Google, to revive the standards-based Rich Communication Suite, with guaranteed interoperability among operators. This may turn the tables and bring back innovation in communication services to the operators. But these are long battles to be fought.

How is the role of fibre evolving in the core, backhaul and access networks? What will be the industry’s future fibre requirement?

The criticality of optic fibre cable (OFC) networks is now well-known. It is definitely the most basic requirement for any broadband network, whether it is fixed or mobile. While the need for OFC in the core and backhaul is well-established and a fair amount of build-out has happened for these, the need for high bandwidths from the E-node B has brought out the importance of OFC in the access network as well as the need for more fiberised sites. The backhaul requirement, which was only 4 Mbps per site in the case of 2G, has increased to 100 Mbps per site in the current scenario of multiple technologies of 3G/4G/U900, etc.

OFC projects are long-gestation projects, especially in India because of multiple hurdles and an unregulated market. We all, as well as the government, have to work cohesively to streamline the process and optimise the cost of building an OFC network if we want to ensure widespread deployment of broadband services in India. There is a demand for broadband. But, given that current ARPUs are very low as compared to the cost of network deployment, real broadband services will take some time to take off, unless we do something to reduce the time and cost of OFC network deployment, including right of way (RoW).

As the CTO of a leading telecom player, what challenges do you foresee for the company and the industry? What are your strategies to deal with these?

The Indian telecom space has unique challenges, ranging from the limited availability and high price of spectrum to open market handsets and a high share of prepaid subscribers. Hence, many of the techniques prevailing in other markets cannot be applied to India. Also, India has its own unique challenges of infrastructure hygiene, which hugely influence the telecom industry. On the other hand, the availability of infrastructure and the rates at which the services are provided to customers are among the lowest. As we spread 4G to a larger population, the need for a robust and high-capacity backhaul is essential.

We are in discussions with government bodies to rationalise RoW charges and streamline the approval process for OFC in order to build the national infrastructure and lay fibre to deliver higher quality broadband services.

How is the company dealing with the growing QoS concerns? What efforts need to be made by the industry and the government to address this sector-wide challenge?

The QoS parameters have been laid down by TRAI and the operators are meeting them by and large. Lately, there has been a lot of discussion on the call drops issue, mainly in big towns and metros. While operators definitely need to put in a lot of extra effort to meet the QoS parameters, some support is also needed from the government, especially in getting access to government buildings and areas like cantonments to set up towers. Also, many sites get blocked for various reasons such as radiation concerns and actions by municipal corporations, which impact coverage and quality. Idea has increased its focus on QoS, and this has already started showing results.

What are the industry’s expectations from the government regarding spectrum refarming, new allocations and trading/sharing?

The most urgent need was spectrum harmonisation, so that operators can get contiguous bands, which is a prerequisite for the launch of new technologies like 3G and 4G. This situation arose because, unfortunately in the past, this was not kept in mind and spectrum was allotted in small chunks. However, a major harmonisation exercise has recently been completed for the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands at the industry level, under DoT’s directions. A similar effort may be needed for other bands in the coming days and again for the 1800 MHz band after the upcoming auction.

What is your view on E-Band and V-Band? How relevant are these in the Indian context and how can these be utilised?

For most big operators, coverage through macro sites has already been provided. In order to enhance and adopt new technologies like small cells, there is a need for new spectrum bands like E-Band and V-Band. These need to be opened for the backhaul of small cells to the anchor sites. These bands will help operators in building capacity and ensuring coverage in areas that have a heavy demand for services.

Which are the five technology or related trends that you believe will shape the future of telecom?

Technology is rapidly evolving to provide higher speeds to users. It is limited by the amount of spectrum available to operators. I see the following areas evolving in the next two to three years: carrier aggregation, software defined networking, NFV, IP-based voice, and cloud-based services.

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