Saankhya Labs, based in Bengaluru, are one of India's leading indigenous telecom gear makers. Having been established in 2006, the company has since developed a powerful portfolio of telecom-grade network equipment. As India prepares for 5G, so have Saankhya; their portfolio includes products and solutions for not only 5G, but also broadband, satellite and applications including rural broadband connectivity, IoT and others.
Saankhya Labs was the brainchild of Parag Naik, who established the company in 2006. Parag, who has over 3 decades of experience in telecom and semiconductors, has also founded two more startups. Talking with Voice&Data, Parag talks 5G, satcom and Saankhya's approach to the ever-growing Indian connectivity market.
Q1. Given India’s already expanding 5G smartphone market, do you believe that India will emerge as one of the most important 5G markets across the world?
Though the 5G roll out in India is slightly delayed as compared to other countries, India will definitely emerge as one of the most important 5G markets in the world. With a large mobile-connectivity dependent population, India will undoubtedly be a good market for 5G mobile services. As our economy continues its growth trajectory, it will lead to further demand for “smart” solutions across multiple industries and IoT services. This, in turn will lead to a larger market for enterprise 5G solutions.
Q2. 5G is going to be a money-intensive undertaking. Do you believe that the telecom sector of the country is well-prepared for the rollout?
Rolling out a completely new mobile network is an expensive proposition, infrastructure-wise. Apart from that, the cost of spectrum is also prohibitive. It is unlikely that any network operator will undertake a nationwide rollout of 5G, at one go. 5G will rollout gradually and for a few years it will co-exist with legacy 4G and even 3G networks.
However, as discussed earlier, the potential 5G market in India is very large, so telecom companies will consider appropriate investments so as to maximize returns. Also, 5G unlike 4G, has a much larger play in enterprise focused services that Telecom Operators can offer to the industry. Mobile network operators are also looking at optimizing the cost in various ways, including the use of Open RAN solutions for 5G. Use of Open RAN solutions helps in reduction of the Total Cost of Operations (TCO) of the network. This will be a major consideration while upgrading the network for 5G.
Q3. Satcom has also emerged as a huge opportunity in the Indian market. What kind of synergies will develop between satcom and telecom over the coming years?
Satcom is becoming mainstream now, than any time in the past. Technologies like 5G allow ‘non-5G’ networks to be hooked to mainstream networks to take advantage of multiple technologies.
The Digital India program by the Govt. of India aims to digitize several govt services, to enable easy online access to all. One of the challenges faced by the program is providing these services in approx. 6 Lakh villages across the country. The govt’s BharatNet program offers reliable broadband connectivity to 2.5 Lakh gram panchayats. Satcom is a very good option to provide the last-mile connectivity in difficult to reach areas.
Satcom has the unique ability to provide ubiquitous coverage, which is a blessing in sparsely populated locations, whereas telecom has deeper penetration in densely populated areas. IoT is a great example of how technology can evolve supporting both telecom and satcom applications. TRAI has recently made a series of recommendations to make Satcom mainstream for IOT applications.
Q4. What are some of the most important use cases that might develop from the synergies between satcom and telecom?
IoT is a very good candidate for leveraging Satcom. There are several instances of satcom being leveraged, already. For example, the Indian Railways uses a combination of mobile and Satcom tracking for more effective tracking of locomotives. A host of applications from Satellite backhaul for telecom towers in remote locations, to disaster management applications already benefit from the synergy. Maritime and inflight entertainment are predominantly Satcom based. Similarly, Tele-education and Tele-medicine are emerging as hybrid services.
Q5. Do you believe that satcom has the potential to replace ground-based telecom equipment one day, as many of the satcom players have been promising?
Telecom and Satcom have their unique advantages and business dynamics. In near future, they will move from ‘competitive’ to ‘collaborative’ mode. Satcom has several challenges such as latency and higher cost. We don’t see satcom - replacing Telecom services completely anytime in the near future. I think that assuming all the ground-based telecom equipment will be replaced with Satcom, is stretching the argument a bit far.
Q6. Network virtualization and network function virtualization have become key areas for focus for telcos looking to deploy 5G. Can virtualized network revitalize the ailing telecom sector?
5G networks are becoming increasingly software driven. Mobile Network Operators are moving towards virtualized, cloud optimized RAN architecture. Open RAN Solutions enable telecom networks to behave like IT cloud networks and telco clouds are able to receive all the scaling benefits accrued in an IT cloud network. This leads to simplifying deployment, provisioning, and automation with the application of AI/ML.
The virtualization and cloudification of networks also reduces the capex and opex for mobile network operators. As Radio Access Network is a significant investment for a telecom operator, the reduction in Capex and Opex will bring down the Total Cost of Ownership for the network.
All these benefits of a virtualized network can revitalize the ailing telecom sector.
Q7. Why are virtual RAN architectures, such as Open RAN and vRAN, gaining popularity among the telcos across the world?
For way too long, a handful of companies have controlled the RAN infrastructure market. They have controlled the costs and stifled new innovations. Virtual RAN architectures such as Open RAN are becoming popular with telcos because they offer many benefits compared to the traditional networks. Open RAN solutions are software defined and they disaggregate the hardware and software. They allow network functions to shift to the cloud. This in turn dramatically reduces the cost of hardware and also reduces the capex and opex of mobile network operators.
These solutions bring in more innovative solutions to enter the telco space and enable future proofing of the network. Mobile network operators can implement new solutions without replacing expensive hardware. They can upgrade through simple remote software upgrades.
Open RAN solutions are more elastic. They allow Mobile Network Operators to scale up/down the data center and permit cell site deployment. Elasticity allows the operators to “provision on the go” and improve the efficiency of the network.
Q8. What are some of the innovations Saankhya Labs are bringing to the 5G table?
Saankhya is focused on 5G solutions. We have been working on Software Defined Radio technologies for more than 13 years. Thanks to Open RAN, the market is now ready to adopt some of our innovations. We are not focusing on building 5G solutions based on some standard reference designs, but mainly focusing on building ground up solutions with lot of differentiations. Saankhya’s differentiated Open RAN solutions for 5G and beyond include
- 5G Remote Radio Unit based on ORAN 7.2x split
- Open DU platform which is a ground up design for vRAN hardware platform
- A Portable RAN Framework, aka RANWiser which enables disaggregation and decoupling of DU hardware and software
- Radio Mapping solution for network automation, planning and operations.
These solutions will immensely benefit the mobile network operators by providing scalable, highly elastic networks and reducing the total cost of ownership.