Stretching Connectivity: Why Wireless Holds The Key to Bharat Net

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By Dr John Naylon, CTO and founder, CBNL

Bharat Net, the nationwide initiative to connect thousands of gram panchayats (GPs) across the country to the internet, was rightly considered an ambitious statement of intent by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Under Bharat Net, a national infrastructure network programme will provide 100 Mbps broadband to 2.5 lakh GPs across India, offering high speed connectivity to millions of people. As of September 2017, the project has already reached over 1 lakh GPs via underground optical cables. But whilst Bharat Net has certainly hit the ground running, the biggest hurdle – ensuring universal connectivity to remote areas – has yet to be jumped.

Expanding connectivity to 100% of the GPs will represent an impressive feat, given that many villages are isolated from major population centers and lie in remote locations within notoriously inaccessible landscapes. The achievement will be a major step forward in bridging the digital divide in India, ensuring rural populations are afforded the same opportunities enjoyed by their urban counterparts. As a result, the initiative will make a real difference to the lives of millions, empowering communities and laying the foundations for long-term economic growth.

With such an ambitious universal vision, it should come as no surprise that questions have been raised about the ability of a single technology to provide the means to realize the entire project. As the project has progressed, it has become increasingly clear that wireless holds the key to fulfilling 100% coverage to the GPs and hitting the 2018 deadline. Fortunately – with the announcement of the modified Bharat Net strategy – the government is set to introduce exactly that.

In order to attract commercial operators to the project, the budget, timeline and technology strategy have all been revised. The move to a mixed technology strategy is arguably the most transformative aspect, now allowing project leaders to leverage the world’s most advanced wireless technologies. This will not only enable the government to accelerate its own Bharat Net infrastructure, but also lay down a compelling business case for commercial operators to join the project.

The modified strategy will allow India to benefit from a diverse group of solutions which can quickly expand existing access coverage, including technology that is paving the way for 5G. When matching Bharat Net requirements to the wireless landscape, it’s microwave frequencies between 10.5GHz and 28GHz that stand out as offering the most exciting potential. Technology in these bands can cover vast distances and deliver 100Mbps to multiple sites with ease, leaving ample headroom for growth to a Gigabit per second and beyond in the future. These performance characteristics are complemented by frequencies which do not suffer from interference and congestion.

The historical challenge of deploying networks in these frequencies has been the cost of legacy point-to-point solutions. However the latest pre-5G point-to-multipoint (PMP) technology is enabling operators to leverage the benefits of microwave through a wholly more attractive business case. This was recently demonstrated by UK analyst firm, Real Wireless, who reported that PMP can save up to 50 percent CAPEX, OPEX and total cost of ownership compared to PTP.

When using 10.5GHz, for example, a single PMP access point radio can connect up to 63 GPs in a sector that reaches over 28km. By aggregating data from 63 GPs to a single hub, a large-scale network can be rapidly deployed in a fraction of the time and cost compared to the legacy PTP technology in this band. The same efficiencies can be derived from PMP deployments at 26GHz and 28GHz, where hub sites can be scaled to 14.4Gbps, supporting many GPs with the 100Mbps services that are in such demand.

By using PMP microwave in this way the Bharat Net project can quickly augment existing optical fibre deployments to achieve ubiquitous connectivity, overcoming the geographic barriers that have previously held it back. This will provide undoubted socio-economic benefits for the 1 lakh GPs who are still to be connected. Although we may see the targeted use of satellite and Wi-Fi within villages, its microwave that can revolutionize the network backbone and deliver the project’s vision.

From working on some of the first pre-5G deployments, CBNL has seen first-hand the impact solutions in these frequencies can have. CBNL has just completed a PMP microwave deployment in the U.S., for example, which has connected over 20,000 homes with 200Mbps broadband. Until this technology, rural or remote locations had very limited options, leaving them under-served or completely unconnected. Innovation in wireless has changed the landscape and offers huge advantages to rural populations and the operators looking to connect them.

It’s an exciting time for digital development in India. The Government’s commitment to meeting its connectivity goals through mixed media has opened the door to new approaches, ideas and technologies. Bharat Net is set to become one of the most transformational rural technology projects in Asia, built on a suite of solutions that provide ubiquitous connectivity across the country. By banking on wireless technology, Bharat Net can accelerate its progress and lay foundations for a bright future.