Jitendra Balakrishnan, Chief Technology Officer – Optical Network Business, Sterlite Technologies Ltd, in an interaction with Industry Outlook, shares his views on how the optical networking market is evolving, the importance of building a robust optical fibre network, speeding up fibre roll-out projects, and more.
The global optical networking market is anticipated to progress at a high CAGR of 8.4% to reach a valuation of USD 24.8 Bn by 2029. How do you see this market evolving in India? What are the major factors driving the growth of this market?
The global optical market is growing and India is one of the big growth regions. Optical fibre
is the backbone of optical networking
and that is basically what our entire internet connectivity is carried upon globally, today. India deployed about 17 million fibre kilometres in 2021. This year in 2022, it is expected to almost double to about 33 million fibre kilometres and the main reason why we are doing that is because of the advent of all these modern networks, such as cellular networks, etc.
For instance, in the case of cellular towers, we have fibre going to the base of those towers to take up the signal from there. And today, about 33% of cellular towers in India are of fibre. We need that to get to about 80%, for that network to be resilient. India has huge growth potential for optical fibre, not just this year, but into the near future as well. It is because Indian manufacturers over the years have invested considerable capital into the production of the optical fibre cables.
In order to ensure that the people receive the benefits of a digital economy, it’s important to connect them with high-speed internet. This can only be achieved by building a robust optical fibre network across the globe. What kind of technologies should be leveraged by telecom operators to achieve this?
There are two aspects of this. The first one is what should telecom operators be thinking about to build a robust optical fibre network
. And, this boils down to both the deployment of the network, as well as the technologies that are used to increase the data rate. When deploying the network, there are a lot of different things that you can do in terms of both the choice of fibre, maximizing the capacity of the network in terms of cables, as well as several different deployment techniques to minimize the time taken for the deployment of networks.
The second aspect of other areas that you need to think of is, for example, that networks themselves are changing. If you look at the advent of networks, it went from long-distance networks,
where cities were connected down to intra-city, making the rings around which the data could be transmitted, and then all the way down to edge networks, which are fibre terminating in your houses. Therefore, there are a lot of different technologies, which are required for this transition to happen from city-to-city networks all the way to fibre networks in the house. Telecom operators are well aware of this but the rapid pace of change has impeded adoption.
In India, we have a chance to leapfrog technologies, which, for instance, in other parts of the world, have taken sequential steps. We can actually avoid the intermediate step and go to the next level, for example, into the most advanced fibre times today, which were not available about 10 years ago. Hence, we have an advantage over here if we choose to use it.
Fibre roll-out projects, especially in India have been slow-paced. The fall-outs are evident in the time and cost overruns that plague large-scale projects. What kind of products does the industry need now in order to address these challenges and deliver stage-wise excellence?
Yes, fibre rollout projects typically do run slow. There are different ways in which we can look at this, and we need to think about the people who put down the networks on the field. So, the first thing is that avoid putting fibre in as much as possible or repeatedly and build in as much capacity upfront as you can. And, use high-density cables. Now high-density cables take up a lot of space. Hence, there are a lot of miniaturization technologies that are coming to ensure that you have these cables fitting into small footprints.
Next comes the speed issue. If you have a cable with a fibre counter frame, say around 200 to 300 fibres in a particular cable, each fibre splice takes you about two minutes. So, when you think about a field technician sitting there and trying to splice this on the field, every fibre is going to take 2 minutes, and therefore, 300 fibres are going to take 600 hours, and the technician has to be there for a week in a particular location trying to splice these fibres. To avoid this, we have something called ribbon technologies where you take 12 fibres and bond them together. Therefore, you are slicing 12 to 12 instead of one to one, and the time taken reduces to 50 hours from 600 hours, which takes only two days. That is one way you can increase the speed and save time.
The second way to increase speed is by using the fibre called Stellar. Stellar is a bend-insensitive fibre, which helps the installer splice it right for the very first time. When you are splicing fibres and you don't get them right, you have to re-do the splice, which takes additional time. Therefore, we have to ensure that these are avoided to save time. The third method is this field connectorization, which should be taken away and put into the factory. The pre connectorization solutions with plug and play boxes that you put into the field are supposed to be doing the labor-intensive things in a harsh environment in the field. These are examples of things that will help in speeding up the fibre rollout process and increasing the quality of fibre rollouts.
How do you see the market for optical networking evolving in the near future?
This is an incredibly exciting time to be in the optical networking space because what you are seeing is this massive expansion of data and the way data is being consumed across the globe because of emerging applications. We frequently hear about connected factories, artificial intelligence, and driverless cars; we keep hearing about all of these in the media as well. But an element that is common to all of these is that they require a lot of data with very short latency.
There is a massive change in the way networks are being laid out, which means it's a massive change in fibre cables, and also what is called optical wireless convergence. These two networks - the wireless network and the optical networks are all becoming the same network with two different parts which are complementary to each other. And, this is another area that is going to be critical. The coming decade is going to be critical as companies, governments, etc, think about fibre as a critical resource that is needed for the growth of economy.