By: T. V. Ramachandran
An ambulance whizzes through busy Indian metro traffic, siren blaring. Rush hour for evening commuters makes it harder and harder to push through main roads. The paramedics are hard at work trying to resuscitate their patient in the back of the ambulance – but need to get to a hospital quickly. Now picture this scenario. An emergency doctor is beamed into the ambulance and provides timely guidance to the paramedics regarding next steps. The ambulance driver meanwhile is guided in real-time by a reliable, fast and accurate GPS system that shows him a path with less traffic. These two technological interventions could save lives at a time when each second counts.
This is just one of the scenarios that the promise of a ‘Digital India’ aims to solve for millions of Indians. Having high-capacity bandwidth infrastructure such as high-quality optical fibre cables is the way to elevate India’s businesses, healthcare, financial services, e-government initiatives and others. However, a one-size-fits-all is not the approach to laying optical fibre networks. Strategic planning of the types of optical cables required based on the location and data requirements at hand will ensure that India meets the needs of its citizens.
India is the second biggest internet market with over 450 million of us getting online. This number is expected to grow exponentially to 635.8 million users by 2021 – and we will still have millions more that need access to the internet. Additionally, our voracious appetite for video-based content has taken over the internet. It is predicted that as early as 2019, videos will constitute 80% of all internet traffic world over. This video-based content will certainly consume vast amounts of bandwidth.
In an ideal world, any content transmitted will be reproduced exactly without loss of information or delay to the end user. However, in the real world, a lot of this depends on the capacity and quality of the optical fibre network at hand. So, merely adopting fibre technology is not enough in these times – quality counts.
Honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi eloquently stated, “Cities in the past were built on riverbanks. They are now built along highways. But in the future, they will be built based on the availability of optical fibre networks and next-generation infrastructure.” Any country that intends to maintain a powerful position as a global leader in the future will have to invest in a high-quality fibre network. Our Central Government is clearly aware of the pressing need for superior information superhighways to realize the dream of a ‘Digital India’. As India prepares to be amongst the forerunners of 5G technology adoption, leverage Internet of Things (IoT) and embrace more automation, we will need to see more than 10 Gbps speed – and a high density, high-quality optical fibre network can get us there.
Quality of cables is measured in ‘counts’. High count cables allow data to travel at faster speeds, for longer distances, maintain its integrity and the cables can withstand extreme conditions like under oceans or at very high altitudes. A one-size-fits-all approach is not effective and using low-count cables could lead to data delays (latency) or a reduction or loss of signal (attenuation). It is extremely important therefore that for futureproofing our networks for the increasingly bandwidth-hungry applications of tomorrow, high count fibre of 864 count fibre count is deployed, especially in cities. While naysayers might grumble about the higher deployment costs and the operational challenges in maintaining underground fibre, one has to only remember that all these are worthwhile and more when we realise that the incremental effort can fetch us as much as 25 times capacity!
Additionally, the type of cables required depends on the location and situation at hand. Cables inside buildings will need to be bend-resistant and impervious to other types of pressure. There are other factors to consider. When laying cables for long distance transmissions in the case of connecting two cities together, a cable that can maintain signal integrity over long distances is required – such as a single-mode cable. However, a cable that can transmit much larger amounts of data in one shot should be used for shorter distances within a city to provide high-speed and large capacities for businesses.
The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is in agreement that optical fibre networks are important to India’s development as indicated in the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) 2018 draft released in May this year. The policy shines a spotlight on a ‘Fibre-First Initiative’ which intends to bring fibre connectivity to tier I, II and III cities and towns across India. Currently, less than a quarter of India’s towers are fibre-connected and indeed, fibre-deployment is of the utmost importance. However, there is no mention of the quality requirements for fibre cables that are required to usher in the new zettabyte era of bandwidth.
The process of laying an optical fibre network requires a significant amount of time, money and resources for any nation – and India is no exception. With billions of people to connect through thousands of densely populated regions, focussing on a high-quality optical fibre network at the get-go is advisable. This ensures we address the bandwidth and data quality requirements of the near and distant future.
To be clear, fibre optic cable technology in itself is not new technology – it has been around since the 1980s. A dense lattice of optical fibres currently runs throughout the earth connecting continents. In the United States, the adoption of fibre technology has been rapid. China has been very aggressive in building optical fibre networks including a plan for 10,000 kilometres of cabling across the Arctic circle for a better connection with Europe, Japan, and Russia. China and Pakistan have begun laying an 820 km long cable between the two countries. A recent Nepal-China cable connection bypasses a long-held monopoly that India had over providing internet to the Nepalese.
Certain providers around the globe even provide optical fibre cabling directly to a user’s residence or place of work resulting in high bandwidth for a particular location. This is known as FTTH or Fibre-To-The-Home and provides the highest internet speeds and data quality and is the most expensive to implement. In India, Reliance Jio is entering the wired internet segment and promises to deliver the FTTH technology at economical rates to millions of Indians – many of whom will be first time users. FTTH can provide internet speeds of 100 times that of a basic modem connection. To keep up with Jio, BSNL has very recently slashed rates and promised more data and faster download speeds. It can be game-changing provided the right type of high-quality cabling is implemented.
So, this technology is globally accepted as necessary for our digital world to run smoothly and for our world to progress. With the advent of 5G technology, data-hungry innovations such as the Internet of Things and the booming demand for greater speeds and quality of internet, the quality of fibre that is deployed plays a great role.
This means improved connectivity between continents. Improving the quality of our optical fibre technology can also mean strengthening our defence communication networks. Upfront investment in high-quality fibre technology such as dense wave-division multiplexing technology (DWDM) demonstrates a long-term approach to ensuring India builds its capabilities to match our global counterparts. With DWDM technology, each fibre has the capability to provide greater bandwidth than with traditional optical networks.
In India, the very foundation of the Smart Cities venture is to create cities with advanced infrastructure that are connected with technology and devices that improve efficiency and offer greater advantages to their residents. These cities will install and use multiple sensors that gather various parameters of data that can be analysed and used to improve services.
Think of a forest full of tall and lush trees growing and thriving together. This entire ecosystem is made possible by a dense underground network of strong roots that communicate with each other and exchange information and resources for the betterment of the entire forest. The stronger and healthier the roots, the better the exchange of nutrients and the forest thrives. Similarly, the present, as well as the future of our communication, rests in the hands of sturdy optical fibre networks that run deep across continents and cities connecting us together. The better the quality of these building blocks, the optical fibre cables, the higher the quality and faster the speed of information exchanged around the world.
The author is President of Broadband India Forum and Hon. Fellow of the IET(London)
Research inputs by Ms. Chandana Bala.