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Sitapathy Chavali, Reliance Communications

April 15, 2010
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tele.net talks to Sitapathy Chavali, executive senior vice-president and chief technology officer, Mobility RCOM, about the company's future thrust areas, and the challenges and opportunities in deploying LTE in India. Excerpts...

  Now that RCOM has received 3G spectrum, what is the next step for the company?

The immediate next step is to make sure that 3G services are offered in all critical markets where we have won 3G spectrum. At the same time, for customers to obtain a world-class experience on 3G networks, we have to ensure that the GSM networks are continuously optimised. So both these programmes, that is, optimising the existing 2G networks and ensuring timely completion of the 3G rollout in all the important markets, are currently our focus areas.

 Is RCOM's network 3G ready?

We have recently won 3G licences in our key 13 circles where we are the market leaders in wireless telecom. Currently, we are in the process of placing orders for purchasing the required 3G equipment. The existing 2G equipment is 3G compatible in most of these circles, so we just need to upgrade our 2G equipment to make it 3G ready in terms of network rollout. In some circles where the current network is not yet 3G ready, we are in the process of replacing some of the equipment to make it 3G compatible. All this will help us launch our 3G services in a short time frame of six to nine months in the key markets. The service will be launched in all the other circles subsequently. The existing GSM networks are being upgraded in parallel to ensure that customers on 2G networks also witness further improvements in quality.

 What is your view on the ongoing debate of Wi-Max versus LTE? Which technology will dominate in India?

LTE is witnessing a lot of traction by major global operators like Verizon, AT&T, Vodafone, CSL HK, etc., which have started trials and limited deployment of LTE networks. LTE is the next key step on the 3G road map to enhance customer experience in high speed mobile data services. This is critical since wireline-based broadband services cannot be expanded within a short time to meet the growing data services needs in semi-urban and rural areas.

The rollout and global success of LTE is also driven by support and commitment to develop the much-needed ecosystem by major operators, equipment suppliers, handset and device manufacturers. Wi-Max has been in the limelight for quite some time but major global deployments of Wi-Max have not taken place. The major impediment to the growth of Wi-Max is the non-availability of sufficient terminals and lack of widespread acceptance of the technology itself. Also, it is not a natural evolution choice for existing operators in 3G networks, considering there are no synergies in upgradation from 3G equipment to Wi-Max, unlike the case of LTE. The ecosystem is also yet to mature for Wi-Max to be commercially viable  and serve as an alternative to other similar advanced technologies. Whatever Wi-Max has been deployed globally is fixed Wi-Max, or at the maximum, Nomadic Wi-Max. Full mobility on the Wi-Max platform and its interoperability with other existing networks is yet to be established.

The chosen technology for 3G rollout is dependent primarily on the spectrum band of allocation, equipment and a wide range of terminals available in that band as well as widespread acceptance (roaming) globally. The 3G spectrum allotted in India is in the 2.1 GHz band, which has primarily WCDMA band equipment and terminals available. Thus, all licensees will be deploying WCDMA or HSDPA or HSDPA+ technologies in this band, which is the logical technological evolution path from GSM networks and provides cost efficiency in services, devices and infrastructure. Similarly, BWA spectrum supports mainly Wi-Max and LTE technologies. Therefore, BWA licensees have the option to deploy either of these two technologies. However, operators will be looking to deploy some form of Wi-Max in the short term (one or two years) and will then evolve their networks into LTE going forward, depending on BWA services uptake in the market and the need to integrate their networks with the rest of the wireless networks in terms of roaming and interoperability.

 What are the key emerging technology trends worldwide? Where does India stand vis-a-vis other countries in terms of technology adoption?

Wireless networks globally are migrating from current 2G technologies (primarily GSM and CDMA) to 3G (mostly WCDMA/HSPA based) with future upgrades to fourth-generation platforms such as LTE. These platforms are also the proven technologies in the marketplace with widespread acceptability. Therefore,  most of the equipment manufacturers and handset suppliers are fully aligned on this. Other versions of 3G like TDSCDMA will get restricted to the Chinese markets primarily due to the limited global roaming possibility and choice of terminals available to customers. Wi-Max was introduced with a lot of promise, but could not deliver all-round customer experience, resulting in poor maturity of the ecosystem and non-acceptability of the technology itself by major operators and suppliers. CDMA technologies (1x and EVDO) have seen good growth in selective markets like the US, India and China. While they continue to serve customer needs, the further road map for these technologies is not that strong when compared to WCDMA-based platforms. Thus LTE, which is the natural path of evolution from HSDPA to HSPA, will emerge as the next big technology. Almost all global wireless operators are getting on to the LTE bandwagon now and have committed to rollouts in the next two years. This is also spawning the development of a number of applications and services on these platforms to make it a success.

In the Indian context, the good thing is that we are in a phase where we already have access to advanced 3G technologies like HSDPA and HSPA+ for immediate commercial deployment and can derive the benefit of global volumes that are already building up. Had we launched 3G a few years back, we would have to go through the R99 UMTS route only, and undertake upgrades now.

 What is the future of IPTV as well as mobile TV in India?

Mobile TV is still at a nascent stage globally with some European operators trying it out in niche markets to get a feel of its acceptability and customer behaviour. While all 3G technologies do support variants of mobile TV deployment, its success is primarily dependent on market penetration of high-end terminals and the kind of content offered to customers. But the market in India has not yet been tested for mobile TV success and even globally it has not been a very big success as no operator has done a large-scale mobile TV launch. My feeling is that a few operators will test mobile TV applications in the Indian market to cater to the inherent demand for entertainment and sports-based video services.

IPTV is now being offered by various operators, especially cable operators, because their analog networks are getting upgraded to digital platforms to support internet, broadband and IPTV services. Finally, success will depend on how the customer perceives these new technologies and offerings, and on whether we are able to provide value for money.

I cannot say much about IPTV's future prospects as not much has been done yet, except for some pilot networks being set up and limited offerings in the metros. As for mobile TV, earlier a few operators had launched limited mobile TV-like services using 2G networks, but they did not succeed primarily because 2G networks do not support the kind of speeds that are required for mobile TV applications to give a good customer experience. With 3G technologies, this experience will definitely improve. I am quite bullish on the kind of value-added services that are likely to come into the market in the next few years.

 What level of investments are you planning in the next two-three years? What will be your key thrust areas?

As RCOM is currently operating networks based on both GSM and CDMA technologies and is rolling out 3G services, the thrust is on both rolling out in new 3G markets and on improving our 2G offerings. The focus is also on further rolling out broadband connectivity services across the country and foraying into areas where we can add value for the customer. Our capex investments will be in line with our needs to grow and retain our position as a leader.

 What is the road map for next-generation networks (NGNs) in India? Which technology will be the most important for Indian telecom in the coming years?

NGNs have generated a lot of debate globally in the past five to six years. These platforms provide all-IP networks. They help operators to easily integrate new technologies, services and applications onto their existing platforms, and also provide end-to-end quality of service to customers. As all operators roll out major technologies, there will be a migration to NGNs and platforms which ensure that customer-centricity is the focus area rather than only technical or network parameters.

In India, though wireless penetration has grown exponentially in the past decade with the customer base exceeding 500 million, wireline penetration has shrunk in most markets. So definitely, its wireless that is going to further drive telecom growth in terms of both voice and data. These services are growing in line with the rising aspirations of people. Wireless is also driving the broadband revolution by getting into rural and semi-urban areas where the demand for broadband exists but there is no adequate wireline infrastructure to support it.

 What are the key unresolved issues and concerns with respect to the existing technologies in India?

There are not many technological concerns for GSM and CDMA networks as most of the platforms we use are in operation globally and have end-to-end customer acceptance. Also, there are sufficient global R&D efforts to improve 2G technologies, considering that these will continue to be the mainstream wireless technologies for a few more years to come, especially for voice services. The availability of sufficient spectrum to handle traffic growth in major cities is a challenge. However, we Indians are highly innovative in terms of extracting the most from the limited spectrum available and have involved a lot of global R&D towards achieving this.


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