For Jagbir Singh, 2011 has been something of a watershed year.
That’s because he is Director-Network Services Group at India’s biggest mobile operator Bharti Airtel Ltd., which has recently launched its 3G services and is now preparing to offer -based services using its BWA (Broadband Wireless Access) spectrum.
In an exclusive interaction with Light Reading India, Singh gave us the lowdown on Bharti’s network challenges and its focus on femtocells and Wi-Fi.
Light Reading India: The Indian operators are in the midst of transforming the network to face the backhaul challenge with the launch of 3G services. How is Bharti coping with this challenge?
Jagbir: 3G rollout backhaul is a challenge for all the operators. We are fortunate that all our network is four-to-five years old so we don’t have much legacy. All the technology that we have deployed is [only] three-to-five years old. However, at the same time we didnt design this kind of backhaul [which is required now]. About two years back [when the 3G and BWA spectrum auctioning and licensing process began] we started upgrading the microwave. Beyond a point you cannot have everything on microwave — it has its limitation on how much data it can transport. So what we are doing is moving from TDM to IP. We are fortunate that we have fixed line business and because of that we have a lot of fiber in the ground, especially in big cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. These are the cities which are very critical for the data market, where it is difficult to get ROW [right of way] — these are the cities where it is difficult to lay down fiber. We have good fiber network in these cities and we are still expanding because we are hoping that we would be launching LTE soon. We are able to cope and we are much better placed than anybody else in the country.
Light Reading India: What has been the response of recently launched 3G services? By how much has the data intake increased since the launch of 3G?
Jagbir: 3G uptake has been very good on the data side. The main reason for that is that a user doesn’t have much option [except to use 3G] if he wants to have data any time and anywhere. Fixed line is very limited and you don’t have the reach of fiber and copper to the house. Flexibility of getting the connection is only through wireless and 3G is the only option in wireless. LTE will come but right now the best option is only 3G. So there is a huge demand in the market for the dongles, broadband connections and we feel that this market is going to grow like anything in the next five-to-seven years.
Light Reading India: However, there have been a number of complaints regarding the coverage and speed of 3G network… Jagbir: Whenever you launch a new technology, it takes two-to-four years for it to stabilize. At least we have the benefit that we have learned from [other operators such as] AT&T Inc.. We have the advantage of the learnings of the other operators in terms of latest technologies. We are putting more and more sites, taking customer complaints and taking care of the coverage issues. Day by day, the complaints are coming down.
Light Reading India: In-building access is an issue in both 3G and LTE. What is going to be Bharti’s strategy regarding this? Jagbir: In-building is an issue. If you go today for 2G in 1800 MHz, in-building will be an issue. There is no other solution but to go for repeaters, picos [small radio access cells] and femtos. We have started deploying [for 2G] a lot of picos in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. We have a huge number of repeaters but now we are moving to picos. Femto is for 3G, we are doing trials and we have deployed femtos in Bangalore city. They are not a proven product and we are deploying them as and when they are available. We are trying to make this as user friendly as possible. We are going to have a good femto rollout for sure. But it will take time and we would be initially focusing on top cities.
Light Reading India: In most of the developed markets, customers pay for any device for in-building access. Is the Indian customer willing to pay for a femto?
Jagbir: No customer will pay for femto, pico or repeater. We are depending on the customer ARPU. We have to bear the cost. Price is, for sure, a concern and we can’t keep putting femto in everybodys house. Light Reading India: Is Wi-Fi going to be an important part of your data offload strategy? Jagbir: Slowly Wi-Fi is picking up. So we have the plan of 2G traffic being offloaded to Wi-Fi. We also have plan of 3G and LTE both being offloaded to Wi-Fi. We are in a unique position [when compared to any other private operators] because I can do Wi-Fi backhauling on my DSL. So as soon as you move inside your office or house, whether you are a 2G, 3G or LTE user, you can get offloaded to the Wi-Fi inside the house. So I offload my utilization of the spectrum and give much better coverage to the customer. (See Wi-Fi Offload Set to Boom in India.)
Light Reading India: At what stage is the LTE network rollout? By when are we likely to see the launch of Bharti’s LTE TDD network?
Jagbir: We are currently evaluating and conducting the trials.