Idea Cellular Ltd., the fourth largest operator in the country, has been in news recently for a number of reasons. It has the largest percentage of active subscribers and it is also the biggest gainer of the recently launched Mobile Number Portability (MNP).
We spoke to Idea’s Chief Technology Officer Anil Tandan, to find out more about the company’s challenges and strategy. He spoke at length about the backhaul challenges faced by the company, its movement towards fiberization, the strategies for in-building access and the biggest challenge faced by Indian operators today: how to provide a great customer experience to the end subscriber. Here are excerpts from the interview:
On Backhaul Challenge
I think all operators had realized that there would be backhaul challenges as we moved into 3G few months back. We, in Idea, had anticipated this and had taken some action even before the auction. We realized that 3G is more of a backhaul challenge and we (methodically) prepared for it. There were two-three steps that we decided to take.
First, we decided to move our TDM microwave link to IP. Secondly, we decided that we would have more and more of our sites fiberised. In fact, we decided to work in Delhi much before the auction. It is a different matter that finally we didnt get (spectrum in) Delhi circle (laughs). In our major circles we started sanctioning the Capex for the same, well before the auction.
In the microwave side the issue we faced was do we go in for an all IP or do we go for a hybrid model? Considering that we started the process in April-May-June 2010, the devices available for greater than 7.2 Mbps then were very limited. Very few handsets and only some dongles were available. The other two considerations were the ease and speed of deployment and minimal obsolescence. So we decided to go for hybrid model. In this again we took a decision well in advance even before we finalized our 3G vendors. We placed the orders for IP radios to replace the existing ones. However we ran into problems that vendors were unable to meet the delivery schedule that we wanted.
And then there were the issues of physical implementation which involved visits to the sites, remove the old one and putting the new one. This is going to be a constant exercise. We plan to move to all IP domain in the next two years..at least in the top 50-60 towns. We will constantly keep increasing the fiberisation of the sites. In fact, this year we have sanctioned a huge amount of budget for fiberisation of sites and increasing the backhaul capacity.
Fiberizing the Network
Fiber has its challenges. It is difficult to lay down fiber in metros and sometimes the charges for ROW by the Municipal Authorities are very high. Because of all this, the speed of implementation reduces. However, I think, in our own silent way we have done a fair amount of fiberisation of the sites. As of now 12-15 percent of our sites in main cities where we have launched 3G are fiberised. We hope to increase it beyond 20 percent in the next one year, and extend to even smaller towns.
On Data Offload Strategies
We are considering all options. We are considering Femto cells, Wi-Fi offload and we are even looking at 3G repeaters. This (3G repeaters) is not so much for in-building offload but to increase our in-building coverage at some places. But we havent taken a final decision. The trials are going on. We have done some trials with femto cells and we are doing something with Wi-Fi offload.
Idea’s 3G Subscriber Base
For us, in the last two months, data usage is going up by 20 per cent every month. Our top 10 towns in each circle are on IP and the rest will follow but the major data traffic will come from these and we are ready for the data growth. Though 3G uptake is there, but it is not as rapid… there is no sudden spurt of usage. We have a around four lakh active 3G subscriber base.
On MNP Strategy
Reasons for our success in MNP can be two or three. As I look at it, firstly we got ourselves technically ready for it. And when I say technically I mean both Network, IT and the capability to handle the porting requests. Secondly, we took time to set and test our processes for number portability. That was one major aspect. Thirdly, while am not sure if this helped, but when all others were doing 3G advertising we were doing MNP advertising because we were not ready for 3G launch then. Though, we were a little late in 3G but we have done much better and today we have a more extensive roll-out than any other operator. We have got more towns covered… and finally I think it is also the overall upliftment of the brand in the last two-three years which has really helped us.
On Selecting a Wi-fi Partner
Yes, I think we might have to use it (Wi-Fi). The reason for it is better indoor coverage. Secondly, 5 Mhz (of 3G spectrum) is not adequate. If you have a 3G handset, and if you have a Wi-Fi at home, please go back and see what speed you get in 3G and the speed you get in Wi-Fi. No Wi-Fi operator in India has a speed matching that of 3G. They do not have that sort of a backhaul because the companies who are today into Wi-Fi, lease backhaul from us operators. They can do coverage at hotspot but to give good customer experience, it is about how much backhaul capacity you have. So that is my concern – who is going to be a suitable Wi-Fi partner who will invest so much to give me the speed and experience, similar to 3G.
The Biggest Challenge In recent times, 3G (roll-out) and 3G ICR (Intra Circle Roaming agreement with Airtel and Vodafone) has been a challenge. It was something new, especially ICR, which has not been done anywhere earlier, so it was a big challenge. Going forward there is a multitude of equipment that we have got on transmission side. We have got legacy equipment. You cant write them off yet so you need to make the network as modern and as updated as possible. How does one do it with the least amount of write-offs is a challenge. And building that thick fat pipe is definitely going to be (a challenge). Secondly, how do you provide end-to-end customer experience especially when you get into the data field? Voice is now a commodity. In data there are many issues and we are still learning. In 3G data, each handset behaves so differently. Every day is a new learning for us. Blackberry behaves differently, Samsung Corp. behaves differently. Voice is quiet simple but data is different. How to handle the data experience of the subscriber? And provide him a good quality data experience with end-to-end Quality of Service going to be the challenge.
Gagandeep Kaur, Editor, Light Reading India