By Manishika Miglani
To fulfil the vision of Digital India, it is important to facilitate “Broadband to All” as a primary element. This requires tremendous network consolidation with huge investments in fibre optics.
Sterlite Technologies, a global provider of optic fibre and optic fibre cable, aims to act as a catalyst in taking this vision forward in the midst of the data boom India is witnessing.
In an exclusive interview with Voice&Data, Ankit Agarwal, Head-Telecom, Sterlite Technologies, talked about the current network infrastructure in India, the company’s investments plans along with highlighting their current focus areas. Excerpts
Voice&Data: Can you give a background of the telecom manufacturing business of Sterlite technologies?
Ankit Agarwal: Currently, Sterlite Technologies is the leading manufacturer of all the products on the data side, viz. optic fibre, and optic fibre cable. Apart from India, we manufacture in China and Brazil as well which makes us a global solution provider. The optic fibre and optic fibre cable are exported in more than 70 countries. Also, seven out of the top 10 global operators are using optical fibre cables from Sterlite Technologies. We believe that we are taking a leadership position in building out the fibre network and also we have a strong portfolio of structured data cables in category 6, 6A and 7 cables.
Voice&Data: Can you name a few of your customers?
Ankit Agarwal: We cater to all the leading telecom operators in India, including Airtel, Reliance, Vodafone, Idea. At a global level too, we have clientele like British Telecom, Saudi Telecom, Telecom Italia etc.
Voice&Data: What is the revenue that Telecom contributes to Sterlite’s business (both global and India-specific)?
Ankit Agarwal: Last year, we had about 1,500 crore coming from telecom business. This year, we will have optic fibre capacity of about 22 million and are looking to increase the same to 30 million fibre km in the next two years (2017). We have invested in doubling our optic fibre cable capacity from 8 million fibre km to 15 million fibre km.
Voice&Data: What is Sterlite’s total spending on R&D?
Ankit Agarwal: Sterlite is the pioneer in India for all the research in optic fibre and optic fibre cable and entire network solutions in India. We work very closely with all the leading telecom operators in India and globally. We look at their networks, the end-to-end solutions that can be suited for meeting their network requirements – whether it is on 3G, 4G or FTTH – in building solutions or small cells. We have our own partners with whom we tie up with for these solutions.
We have R&D on the network side as well. We have spent close to 40 crore in setting up a state of the art centre of Excellence (CoE) in Aurangabad, inaugurated by India’s Former President (Late) Dr Abdul Kalam. Also, we customize our R&D while working with the telecom operators because the network requirement and challenges of deployment are varied. A lot of operators are now looking at FTTH roll-out. We are the only company that makes optic fibre from Silica. Hence, we are the most vertically integrated company in the world. On the manufacturing side, we start from Silica to make optic fibre glass. From this pure, pristine glass, we manufacture the optic fibre. On the other side, we have deployed FTTH in 165,000 homes in the country. In addition to that, we have recently completed acquisition of Elitecore Technologies. Now, we are providing OSS and BSS solutions as well to the telecom operators. With this, we now believe that we play across the value chain, providing all kinds of network solutions softwares for the telecom operators.
Voice&Data: What are your present focus areas?
Ankit Agarwal: In terms of message, we are focussing on “Broadband as a utility”. We believe that just like government provides water, gas, electricity, it is the government’s responsibility to provide broadband. Across the globe, governments are realizing that providing broadband is their core responsibility. In fact, even Prime Minister’s vision of Digital India, truly believes that to make India digital, broadband is an absolute essential. This is already prevalent across USA, Europe and also in certain parts of South East Asia including Singapore.
Our core focus is India, where we believe that tremendous amount of network needs to be built. Operators are now expanding their 3G and 4G services. We believe that FTTH will also be required significantly. In addition to that, the government is keen to provide broadband through Bharatnet, not only to rural, but is also looking at how to improve the broadband coverage in urban India. This is a very urgent requirement for the country. The government has already initiated the vision around Bharatnet. However, a lot more needs to be done.
Voice&Data: How are you contributing to Government’s ‘Digital India’ and ‘Make in India’ vision?
Ankit Agarwal: The key pillar in Digital India is providing broadband to all. Within that, there was a program – NOFN – which is now called Bharatnet. The government has understood that very different kind of network needs to be built and has increased the budget from Rs 20,000 crore to Rs 72,000 core. The government has also realized that the private sector plays an important role in providing end-to-end solutions for network rollout and also for maintenance of the network. There we think we play an important role in the network rollout to pan India.
Also, in the context of network for spectrum, Sterlite has taken up end-to-end network deployment of one of the regions, which is Jammu & Kashmir. There we are building out about 9,500 km network, across the challenging terrain of J&K. This is a critical project, as ultimately the defences releasing spectrum to BSNL, more spectrum is available to the operators. The total project is about 1,900 crore and is expected to be completed by mid of this year. This is an example of how Sterlite has gone beyond providing cables and not only deploying network, but also doing system integration projects like GWTM, MPLS, IPMPLS, etc. So, we are now closely working with the government also since a lot of smart city projects are coming up. Recently, we have done an India-level partnership with Ericsson, for various smart city network deployment.
Voice&Data: What is the investment trend you see in fibre optics given the call drop situation and the increased data use?
Ankit Agarwal: At a macro level, India currently is deploying about 15 million fibre kms per year. Compared to that, China is deploying about 150 million fibre kms, which is about 10 times. In the history of the country, we have deployed about 70-80 million fibre kms while China would have already approached close to a billion kms. Hence, there is a tremendous opportunity. There are 2-3 other aspects around it. One is that less than 20 percent of our towers are connected on optic fibre. Most of the other countries are about 70-80 percent to provide 3G and 4G, including Korea, Japan and China. The operators will need to invest more in deploying more tower infrastructure and significantly higher percentage of towers will need to be connected on optic fibre. For example, China will soon have 250 million 4G users and close to 400-500 million 3G users. If India also wants these kind of 3G and 4G users, significant amount of fibre will need to be deployed to manage the 20X data growth, which is expected in next 3-4 years. The India capex annually is close to about $5-6 billion while China capex is close to $50 billion dollars. So, clearly there is tremendous potential for the operators to increase their investments.
Voice&Data: Why are the investments not happening right now?
Ankit Agarwal: I think the operators are keen to invest. One of the biggest challenges continues to be the right of way. It’s both time consuming and the cost is also very high. There are various charges levied by Municipality and there are delays in getting the approvals as well. That becomes a challenge for the operators to deploy the network underground. The procedures involving government also need to speed up a little. A lot of the other countries have a very streamlined application process for deployment of fibre network.