Building Next-Gen Mobile Backhaul Networks in India
India has come a long way. In a short span of two years the country has come from the 150th position to be among the top 3 globally in terms of mobile data consumption. About 450 million people out of the 1.3 billion population now have access to internet broadband and are driving India’s digital transformation.
However, we are far from done yet. There is still a long way to go. We are still in the mid 30% in terms of internet penetration and currently rank 109th globally when it comes to mobile data speeds. These two statistics are clear indications that the exponential growth in mobile data consumption will continue, with recent research forecasting mobile data traffic in India to grow 11 times by 2023.
When you are building a 10-lane high speed expressway, a narrow stretch of a two-lane road anywhere in the middle would certainly become a huge bottleneck. The same concept applies to telecom networks. We now have visibility into technology advancements on the wireless side (mobile phone to cell tower) which could drive a multi-fold increase in per-user data consumption (e.g. carrier aggregation, massive MIMO, Hetnet enhancements etc.).
With mergers, acquisitions and exits in the telecom service provider industry, there has been a consolidation from 10-15 players in the market down to 3 large market leaders. The consolidation also means each player now has access to a wider spectrum of airwaves to be able to deliver higher data speeds. OTTs like Hotstar, Amazon Prime and Netflix lapped up millions of users with different levels of free and paid services. Not to be left out, Service providers are also building up an entire ecosystem of apps to deliver on-demand video, music and a host of other content.
Today, the technology is available, there is demand, and we are starting to see service consumption models with attractive price points.
Let’s now list out a few challenges to this growth story.
- Clearly, our microwave and wireline telco networks were never built to support this amount of data traffic.
- The market disruption and price war has set new benchmarks for price of data traffic per Gig, which are 90% lower than what they used to be two years back.
We now have the challenge of building networks that are more efficient, more optimized, and can scale to meet this traffic volume. Let’s start with mobile backhaul networks, as this is the domain which will see the maximum volumes and looks to be the current 2-lane bottleneck to the 10-lane high speed expressway:
- Increase Fiber Penetration - We are looking at about 300,000+ new cell towers deployed in the next 12-18 months in India. We also expect significant growth in the traffic to hit each of these cell towers. Traffic from multiple towers needs to be aggregated and backhauled by fiber at Point of Presence (POP) locations. A big challenge that we face today is the small number of fiberized POPs (< 15% in many areas today). Increasing fiber penetration to towers must be a key focus area for service providers.
- Architecture Resiliency – There are standard flow charts and procedures for designing networks which have been followed for many years now. There was a lot of focus on building 1+1 and 1:N layers of equipment to cater for system failures. At that time, the probability of system failures was higher and the ability of the overall solution to handle a system failure in software was limited. Over the years, the FIT (Failure in Time) rates of hardware have improved drastically; and the ability of solutions to handle a hardware failure in the architecture design and software now enables network design engineers to explore different options which bring CAPEX and OPEX efficiencies. For backhaul networks, design concepts like dual homing, spine leaf architectures, and optical by-pass to create virtual logical star topologies are being widely used to create more efficient and optimized network designs.
- Technology Transformation - The evolution to data intensive 3G, 4G, and soon 5G mobile technologies is making legacy TDM-based mobile backhaul a bottleneck. With the increasing traffic, increasing the number of TDM lines in the backhaul was operationally expensive, inflexible, and wouldn’t scale. Since LTE itself is packet-based, it also makes sense to use packet-based backhaul instead of “mapping” the LTE services over TDM timeslots. It may seem like a daunting journey, but to move to a next-gen network, service providers need mobile packet backhaul networks that can migrate from TDM to Packet, by supporting their TDM services while gracefully migrating to packet when they need.
- Automation. To roll out the networks at the speed India needs, automation is key. Many service providers today already leverage technology that offers automation or automation-enabling capabilities. Zero Touch Provisioning (ZTP), service scripting, Software Defined Networking (SDN), Network Function Virtualization (NFV), and Life Cycle Service Orchestration (LSO) can all be used to reduce repetitive manual tasks and enable scaling out quickly. These capabilities enable value-added services to be rolled out en masse quickly without breaking the service provider’s business case. Forward thinking service providers must look to intelligent automation, which incorporates recent advancements in big data analytics and machine learning, to be able to make true intelligent automation possible from end to end and, as a result, run their businesses smarter and much more efficiently.
- Scalability. Service providers in India are now designing the network for tomorrow. They must always look to solutions that offer ultra-dense design, simple operations, advanced programmability, and openness, which will provide the right tools to address tomorrow’s complexity and requirements. For instance, there are efficiencies associated with integrated packet switching and coherent optical transport which results in fewer platforms to deploy and manage, thereby greatly reducing the complexity when it is time to scale up. Service providers in India know all too well that the ability to scale network capacity faster and smarter is a huge competitive advantage, and in fact, can be a matter of survival.
Exponential traffic growth is a trend we will continue to see as internet penetration increases and India moves up the global rankings for data consumption. We need to design and architect backhaul networks that are scalable, resilient, and easy to deploy and operate. We need networks that are truly Adaptive and are able to meet the demands of tomorrow. In essence, we need that 10-lane high speed expressway with no bottlenecks.