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Interview with Nokia India’s Randeep Raina

November 27, 2018
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The Indian telecom technology landscape has undergone a sea change in the past few years. The industry has leapfrogged from 2G to 4G successfully and now has aspirations to join the 5G bandwagon keeping pace with global timelines. In an interview with tele.net, Randeep Raina, chief technology officer (CTO), Nokia India, talks about the evolving technology trends in the telecom space, the changing operator requirements in India, the industry’s preparedness for 5G and the way forward...

How has the telecom technology landscape evolved in India?

The telecom landscape is changing significantly. There has been an unprecedented transformation in the past 18-24 months, with 4G becoming a mainstream technology. This does not undermine the necessity for 3G. With the way traffic is  growing, India will need multiple technologies to support it in the short to medium term, which means that 3G will be needed to offload some of the 4G data because of spectrum limitations. And 2G will continue to be used predominantly for voice.

That said, voice over LTE (VoLTE) has taken a jump and we are seeing increasing deployments from all the major carriers. It will emerge as the technology of choice for the masses in the future. A greater proliferation of VoLTE-enabled handsets will contribute significantly to the uptake.

Interestingly, operators are expecting  more technological transformations. There is pressure on ARPUs due to low tariffs. We will see the transformation happen in multiple areas. Deployments are already taking place on the virtualisation side and this will be complemented by 5G enablement. 5G is not just a regular technology, it requires a complete transformation of the telecom architecture. Operators today are also looking at significantly reducing their cost per bit, and new technologies like network function virtualisation (NFV), software-defined networking (SDN) and 5G will bring in efficiencies into the network.

How have customer requirements  changed over time?

Operators are looking for partners that can provide end-to-end capability, encompassing multiple network dimensions – radio, core, transport, optics, software, and other associated requirements, as well as network integration. On top of that, they also demand network orchestration.

Nokia is well positioned to provide this end-to-end portfolio to customers. Our acquisition of Alcatel Lucent has helped us broaden our portfolio. Now we can fulfil the entire requirement set of an operator in meeting its current needs, while also enabling future transformations.

We have worked with leading communication service providers and are also venturing into the enterprise space, providing connectivity solutions to organisations. We have got some good, early wins in smart city projects as well.

What has been the impact of sector consolidation on business?

From a business standpoint, we continue to do well in the Indian market. There has not been much impact on revenues. At the end of the day, India continues to be a billion-user market. So whether these users are served by a consolidated player or separate telcos, the market size still remains big. With the advent of 4G, users are expecting better speeds, better throughputs and better latencies. In fact, with consolidation kicking in, we will see significant investments by operators to modernise their legacy assets and make their networks future-proof.

How is the 5G ecosystem developing globally? What is your view on the Indian market’s preparedness?

From an ecosystem standpoint, 5G is ready – standardisations are approved and products are available. Meanwhile, the chipset and device ecosystem is evolving. It is expected that in the first half of 2019, 5G-enabled chipsets and devices will be readily available.

Globally, the 5G timelines are accelerating. While earlier we were looking at 2020, we will see some live commercial networks before that. Operators in Japan, Korea and North America are the front runners in this space.

As for the Indian market, the spectrum roadmap for 5G is being finalised. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), in its recommendations, has identified the 3.5 GHz band for 5G. This band is being used globally, across Europe, China and Korea, for 5G deployments. So, it is a popular and harmonised band for 5G. Also, TRAI has recommended the 700 MHz band, which has a good ecosystem and a propagation advantage that India needs. The device ecosystem is also getting better. As other markets adopt 5G in 2018-19, we will see a higher proliferation of handsets at the affordability levels that India needs.

In terms of the transport system, with 4G roll-out in India, a lot of infrastructure has already been augmented with IP. A lot of fiberisation has taken place, but more needs to be done. This is one challenge that India needs to overcome. Alongside fibre, network densification is crucial. This is very important for 5G because when you are talking about throughputs of 10 GB or more, latency of 1 msc or less, you need dense networks and to achieve this, you would need transport to the last mile or transport to the sites. Hence, small cells will be needed, and to facilitate this, you need backhaul to that particular point. I think, as operators augment their transport backhaul with optics or alternative means like E band or V band, the overall situation for India will improve.

Currently, given the health of the telecom sector, there is some reservation amongst operators. We believe they are trying to monetise the 4G layer as much as they can. But they will have to keep pace with network architecture changes and surging consumer demand. We are hoping to see proofs of concept happen in early 2019, some small field trials in the second half of 2019 and some 5G clusters going live and commercial by the year 2020.

What is your view on the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018?

The NDCP, 2018 talks about a digital economy, a digital democracy and digital inclusiveness. It is a very bold and promising policy, but true success will lie in its implementation. From a 5G perspective, the government has already created a high-level forum to discuss all the issues and come up with possible solutions. While these are only baby steps, I do believe that the intention of the government to resolve sectoral issues is evident.

As the CTO of a leading network equipment company, what are the key challenges you face today?

One of the key challenges is the pace at which technology is changing. 5G coming up much faster than we anticipated is a challenge as well as an opportunity. Challenge from the perspective that India has been sweating the assets for quite some time and now, all of a sudden, the networks need to be transformed completely. So, low site fiberisation is a key challenge.

Government support in terms of opening up the E and V bands as well as easing right of way will help. Also, spectrum pricing has to be looked into because that is one area where operators are bleeding the most. Spectrum prices in India are very high and need to be in sync with global levels.

How has been the SDN and NFV adoption experience in India?

Operators are looking at a phased approach for NFV and SDN deployment. They are keen to roll out these technologies in anticipation of 5G, as cloud infrastructure is a must for the adoption of these solutions. NFV and SDN give the benefit of time to market, as these solutions provide flexibility and agility to an operator while reducing the total cost of ownership.

The pace of deployment of these solutions is relatively better now than it was a year ago. We are engaged with most of the carriers in pushing for the adoption.

Besides telcos, enterprises too are looking at these solutions. For example, the automotive industry, which has multiple verticals, can deploy SDN and NFV to simplify processes to enhance productivity.

What  technology trends will shape the market, going forward?

With large volumes of data residing in the networks, monetisation of data has become crucial. Thus, a clear trend is that of operators moving beyond their traditional role of a customer service provider to a digital service provider.

The second trend is the convergence of technologies. Earlier, fixed line was competing with wireless, but now it is complementing it. The third trend is the emergence of a digital economy. Everything is getting digitalised – e-commerce, e-health, etc. Transactions are becoming digital, which means less interference or interjection of humans in the day-to-day working.

The fourth trend is the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate operations and understand customer usage patterns, in a bid to deliver better user experience.

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