The year 2018 will be known as the year of 4G in India. Extensive 4G network expansion undertaken by the telcos led to the remarkable growth of the mobile internet subscribers and consumption. This coupled with a significant drop in the prices of smartphone fuelled the mobile broadband market in the country.
The mobile internet connections increased from 346 million in late 2016 to 491 million this year, according to the data released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Further, the consumption per user reached 3.2Gb per user per month. This growth is likely to continue for some time considering that only less than 30% of the country’s population of 1.3 billion has access to the internet.
The service providers have finally started moving away from the metros towards the tier II, tier III and rural areas and this trend will continue in the coming year as well. There is a latent demand in the rural region, and the telcos need to come up with solutions to address this segment.
The Rural Surge
It is imperative that the telcos move away from metro cities towards the rural segment as the metro market is already saturated and there is a latent demand in the rural region.
However, the rural market comes with a number of challenges. The cost of network deployment and management is considerably higher in the rural segment. Further, it takes longer to set up infrastructure because more often than not it is tough to reach these areas. Couple this with the fact the Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) is lower in the rural areas making it tough for the service providers to justify setting up a network in these areas. It is for these reasons that traditionally service providers tend to focus on the urban market at the cost of the rural areas.
Like their global counterparts, the Indian telcos will need to adopt new strategies to expand in the rural market. The traditional network strategy is designed for the urban environment. The challenging terrain and population density of the rural areas demands a different network strategy.
Leveraging The Virtualization Approach
In this regard, virtualization is gaining much traction in the global market. Major global service providers, including Vodafone and Telefonica, have used it to connect the unconnected. Telefonica’s Internet Para Todos project seeks to connect 100 million people in the difficult to reach areas with a virtualization-inspired network.
There is a dual benefit of virtualization. It not only allows the service providers to address the communication demand in the rural market but also prepare the networks for any upcoming technology.
Essentially, the traditional networks are hardware-centric, which makes deployment a very time-consuming proposition. On the other hand, virtualization is software focused which not only makes it is easy to deploy and manage but is also very cost effective.
The concept is a vital part of Facebook’s Open RAN Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which was started to promote innovation to bring down the cost of Radio Access Network deployment. This means that the service providers can use 2G to meet the present-day needs of the rural subscribers and then move them to 3G, 4G or 5G as and when the market is ready.
The self-optimization and self-organizing capabilities make it very easy to install the network. Further, since virtualization is a software-centric network, the network upgrade requires just a software upgrade.
It is especially relevant for India as the service providers start to prepare the networks for the 5G technology, which enables many innovative use cases, including remote surgery, autonomous driving, augmented reality, virtual reality among others. The Indian service providers are already exploring 5G technologies such as carrier aggregation, massive Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) and more. Airtel recently announced the deployment of massive MIMO and has deployed carrier aggregation in the past. Vodafone Idea is also exploring 5G technologies.
The Indian service providers can use the virtualization approach to provide connectivity in the rural areas because 2G still continues to be used in the country. With virtualization they can provide affordable connectivity to their subscribers and move them to 3G, 4G and 5G when the market and the customers are ready.
With virtualization, the Indian service providers can meet the dual objective of preparing for the 5G and also bridging the digital divide and getting newer subscribers and first-time mobile consumers from the rural areas. Being software-centric, it also helps in bringing down both capital and operational expenditure.
Attributed to: Rajesh Mishra (Co-founder, President and CTO, Parallel Wireless)