It has been discussed a couple of times, 5G will bring a lot of benefits. While that might come with an asterisk, one thing is for sure; it will bring speeds experienced never before over broadband. However, there's a catch. A telecom network consists of three parts; core, transport, and radio. People have talked about the core and the radio a lot. However, transport has gone under the radar for a while now. And in Transport, fiberization is one of the major issues.
Simply put, "fiberization" means connecting towers with core and radio via optical fiber cables. It allows full utilization of network capacity and it brings the best of a standard. Along with this, one of the key features of fiberization is to provide good backhaul support to the network. However, with 4G yet to show what it can bring, telcos have their eyes set on 5G.
In the fourth edition of 5G Spotlight, I will look at fiberization, why it is important, and what the industry needs to do before 5G becomes a reality in India.
What Does Fiberization Look Like in India?
"Over the last two years or so, telcos in India have been working on the core. The next step is to modernize the core to virtualize and cloud core", Amit Marwah, Head of Marketing and Corporate Affairs (CMO) at Nokia India, said at DQ DeepTech 2021. Marwah added, "because that has already happened, the core is ready to take the leapfrog into 5G". However, this is where India's 5G readiness ends.
With Open RAN and other virtual RANs, telcos have taken their cores to the cloud, operating networks more efficiently and with better decentralization and disaggregation. Yet, transport remains the least looked-at aspect of the network. "It is very critical, especially in 5G. You need a much fatter pipe because 5G allows for much better throughput and bandwidth. We need large-scale fiberization. Right now, there is only 30% fiberization. Ideally, it should be 100%, but there are some constraints to that. My estimate will be that this 30% should get to 60-70%," Marwah added.
India's network fiberization stands at about 30%. Ideally, it should be at 100%, but since that is not quite possible in a country as large and as geographically diverse as India. As such, India should target about 60-70% network fiberization, to bring the best out of 4G and in the future, 5G standards.
What's more, an STL report noted that India had about 19 Mkm per 1000 people fiber deployment per year; for context, China has about 188 Mkm/1000 people annual fiber deployment, while the US has 163. Ideally, a country needs 1.3 km of fiber per capita to ensure good fiberization. Hence, India needs at least 1500 Mkm of fiber more. India has a long way to go before making a full transition to 5G, and the work starts with fiberization.
The Challenges to Fiberization
The biggest issue in the way of Fiberization remains the Right of Way. Dr. Kochhar highlighted the severity of this issue. "Both the TSPs and the Govt are keen to lay fiber. However, there are issues and the government and TSPs are at it. Hopefully, the local bodies see sense in this and will stop charging high rates", he said.
The variations in cost/kilometer of fiber laid vary not just from state to state, but from city to city. There are extremely large variations as well; for instance, a city could be charging about Rs. 10,000 per kilometer of fiber laid, while the other could be charging as much as Rs. 1 million per kilometer. Therefore, without streamlining RoW rules, the telcos are going to remain apprehensive.
Herein lies the issue; the costs are sometimes so exorbitant that it becomes unviable for an MNO to connect a telecom site with fiber. Along with this, the issues that have come in the absence of proper definitions for Right of Way for telecom companies have limited fiberization in India. Also, the absence of a centralized system to apply for permissions to lay underground fiber leaves room for disproportionate pricing.
Once the government sorts this out, by establishing a proper system for compensations and charges for laying underground fiber, the fiberization will shoot up.
Of course, since we are talking about fiberization and all, what do we need it for anyway?
In the simplest of terms, backhaul represents the part of the network that connects the core of the network to the edge. The backhaul forms the part of the larger transport, which has the responsibility of "carrying" the data on the network. Normally, we associate transport with cables and backhaul frequencies (more on that in a bit). Fiber backhaul remains an important aspect of transport across all telecommunications, hence.
Incidentally, there are both technical and commercial ways to use the term "backhaul". In telecom, though, backhaul has to connect all the sub-networks and private networks to the main source, which is usually called the backbone network. With 5G, there are going to be more private networks than ever before, and to match that demand, the backhaul has to be equally capable.
Since telcos will deploy 5G on virtualized RANs and deploy more edge computing capabilities, the backhaul has to improve. Therefore, for 5G, fiberization needs to improve massively, or the experience will remain half-baked.
We have established that India's fiberization currently remains abysmal. However, the country's attitude towards that status quo has changed. Under the National Broadband Mission, the DoT has targeted 70% fiberization, up from the 30% India has right now. Since that is probably the best India can do, given the varied geographical challenges. What's more, in countries with comparative levels of diversity, such as China, the fiberization stands at 75-80%. Even though 100% fiberization sounds enticing, it might not be possible after all.
Small Cells and The Need for Fiber
Speaking at a media briefing co-hosted by COAI and GSMA, Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Dr. Kochhar, DG, COAI, called for a large-scale small cell deployment across the country in light of growing demand. Dr. Kochhar expressed the need for small cell deployment across the country, and more support from the government to facilitate the same.
He said that the small cells increase network capacity, and work towards densification. He also added that with the increasing demand and the imminent 5G launch, now is the best time to deploy small cells across networks.
Again, when small cells become a possibility, this just means that the telcos and tower companies have more sites to connect with fiber. For proper 5G coverage, small cell sites will go inside large buildings as well, and that means more fiber. In a calculation by STL, to make the transition from 4G to 5G, we need at least 16 times more fiber. This clearly reflects on the current state of fiberization and where the country should actually be.
Is Fiberization Necessary, Though?
Right now, apart from fiberization, telcos can go with either the microwave-powered backhaul or satcom-powered backhaul.
"There are technologies in the microwave, with EMB band, which will help boost capacity. Around 20-30% would be connected with the microwave," Amit Marwah said at DQ DeepTech 2021. Incidentally, while fiber remains the ideal choice, telcos usually go with microwave backhaul.
The biggest reason for that remains the microwave spectrum's capacity and ease of deployment. Without having to dig any trenches, the cost comes down significantly. Therefore, most telcos rely on microwave solutions, and for 5G, the V-band and E-band spectra have been talked about a lot. Both of the bands have throughput capabilities in the range of 10 Gbps to 25 Gbps. However, since an MNO needs a license to use microwave backhaul, it becomes a tad bit unreachable for smaller MNOs.
One of the new technologies on the block for mobile backhaul is satcom, specifically, the next-gen LEO satellite constellations. In a whitepaper by BIF on satcom and 5G, titled “Satellites for 5G & Rural Connectivity,” the industry body talks about how satcom can support 5G. TV Ramachandran, President, BIF, said, “satcom will play a significant role in 5G and beyond, and with future integration into emerging technology standards, it will arise as part of the mainstream, besides continuing to play its role as a complementary solution for ubiquitous coverage, emergency/disaster recovery, and remote rural areas connectivity".
With the Indian government allowing the satcom operators to provide backhaul to telecom sites without needing a license, this has become a far more attractive backup option to optical fiber.
Doing 5G Right
5G has become the most-anticipated mobile standard of all time. And with the anticipation of 5G, the industry has the responsibility of doing it right the first time. For the last half a decade now, 5G has become the most talked-about subject within the telecom space.
While on the fronthaul, the telcos have made huge strides, with virtualized RANs, refarming spectrum, network slicing, and so on, the backhaul has lagged behind. The primary reason for low fiberization in India is the lack of a proper policy framework for the same. The industry has repeatedly insisted on increasing densification, and 5G will demand that.
In 2020, the government had set a target of achieving 70% fiberization and 1 kilometer per telecom tower by 2023. The pandemic had an adverse impact on the progress of that same, sure, but it should become an excuse for low fiberization. Since 2020, fiberization has increased by only about 8%, reaching 30% in 2021.
5G will, among other things, will provide greater network capacity. However, without the infrastructure to back it up, it will remain as half-baked as 4G has been in the country, if not worse. Every single stakeholder in the industry has to pick up the slack and expedite fiberization of telecom towers before thinking about what 5G can and can't do.