So near, yet so far

Written by Indranil Chakraborty | Updated: Oct 29 2007, 07:20am hrs
* As Chennais mobile operator, Aircel expands its operations in North and East, it is conducting trials for 3G services in collaboration with Chinese telecom major, ZTE Corp. Besides Chennai, Aircel is reported to be conducting 3G trials in Guwahati, Coimbatore and Bhubaneswar.

* 3G will form a big chunk of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltds (BSNL) core network expansion. As its adds 3.75 lakh to its existing 10 lakh GSM connections in Kolkata for instance, 75,000 connections would be 3G enabled.

* Bharti is ready to rollout 3G services in two quarters of spectrum allocation, though it refrains from giving details of implementation in core network.

These three are no exceptions. Almost all the countrys mobile operators are bracing up to offer third generation mobile services, though we are yet to see the spectrum policy for 3G services. From BSNL to Aircel, the large and the not so large operators, all are investing money in their core networks to rollout 3G services as soon as the spectrum is available.

BSNL, for one, is going whole-hog. Its 3G migration in the core network is happening across the country and the public sector company is certain that it will be one of the first companies to start 3G services in the country in the first phase. It is learnt to have decided on an open tender for the implementation of 3G radio network, though it has not yet floated the tender probably waiting for governments policy decision. For the officers in BSNL circles, 3G service is already in their core agenda. If BSNL gets the required spectrum for 3G in the next six months, Kolkata telephones will be able to launch the service as there will be 75,000 connections in the core network that will be 3G ready, says Supriya Datta, general manager, mobile maintenance in Calcutta Telephones. Aircel has officially said, It has the core network and switching in place to go for 3G for its subscribers in a few months, on a Chennai-based city blog Chennai 365. Besides Chennai, Aircel is conducting 3G trials in Guwahati, Coimbatore and Bhubaneswar, the blog claims.

As the countrys mobile operators are lobbying hard to make the governments 3G announcements favourable to their needs, in the past few months, they have invested in the network for migration from EDGE/GPRS systems to a 3G network, which essentially means upgrading the existing circuit switches to IP-based switches.

The step will help the operators shorten the 3G network implementation time although the share of cost in the core network will not be more than 5-10%, according to Debashis Bhattacharya, additional director of ZTE Corp. Almost 40-50% of the network cost goes in radio access and planning and once the spectrum is available, the operators have to quickly invest money in the radio access with the putting up of new BTS or making existing BTS 3G enabled along with EDGE/GPRS standard. This will take some time, says Bhattacharya.

Bhattacharya thinks that for CDMA operators like Tata Teleservices or Reliance Infocomm, rollout from the existing state (EVDO enabled network) to a WCDMA network (which is a third generation network for both CDMA and GSM operators) will also not take time. ZTE is working with all the CDMA operators to implement the third generation network, Bhattacharya says.

Bharti will not take more than two quarters to rollout 3G service, although the Bharti spokesperson refrained from commenting on extent to which the core network is 3G ready and what kind of services they will start offering once the rollout is in place. The operators are ready with their plans. They are waiting for the spectrum for the 3G to take off, says Manoj Gurnani, India lead of APAC Technology Group, Nokia Siemens Networks. Nokia Siemens is working with a number of national operators for the implementation of third generation networks. Gurnani says it is extremely difficult to say how much Indian operators will invest to have a full blown 3G operation in place. Bhattacharya of ZTE says BSNLs plan to invest $5.5 billion in the next three years may be an indication, as a large part of it would be spent in the 3G network.

First of all, it will be a phase by phase implementation to have a balance between cost and revenue, says Gurnani. According to him, operators like Bharti may follow their 2G expansion policy, 3-10-5 which essentially means top 3 citiesDelhi, Mumbai, Bangalore first, followed by 10 top tier cities and then followed by top 5 cities in each circle. Bhattacharya thinks that the operators might rollout across the country as it would lower the migration cost for the incumbents and rollout cost for the new ones, if government provides enough spectrum. But the government would not, hence the phase implementation. Since the government will not do that, operators will start implementing phase by phase, said Bhattacharya.

For the operators, the challenge comes during setting up of 3G radio planning which includes putting up BTS in areas where 3G will be available. But in any case Frost & Sullivan telecom analyst Sourabh Kaushal thinks that once the spectrum is available, it will not take more than 4-5 months to have 3G service in place. In case of operators like Vodafone, which has the experience of running 3G operations in Europe, time may be less as the content with some tweaking is readily available, Kaushal says.

Existing operators like Bharti, which is rolling out 3,000 sites per month, according to Gurnani may not face much difficulty in creation of the 3G radio network as the technology is available to have both 3G and 2.5 G antenna in the same BTS.

The 3G excitement for Indian operators is understandable says Usha Rajeev, infocom services leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers, India. Through the introduction of the next generation mobile standards, Indian operators will deliver a host of multimedia services which will bring revenue and sustain their both topline and bottomline growth.

But revenue and services are not an end in itself. 3G will also help operators to improve the voice quality. It will bring spectrum which the operators will use to provide better voice quality besides providing the data, says Rajeev. Gurnani says technology permits the network to seamlessly switch over from 2.5G to 3G in a voice call. The only thing one requires is a 3G phone which is not so expensive now a days, he says. Nokia 6233, a 3G phone costs Rs 8,100 and a high-end phone like Nokia E61i is available at Rs 17,000.

In a scenario where technology obsolescence is fast, industry insiders feels that the operators confidence in 3G standard may face some hurdle from competing technologies like WiMax. WiMax standards 802.16D and 802.16E can transfer data especially in the last mile without any wire and the speed, the initial experiments suggest can compete with 3G.

That could be one of the reasons the GSM operators are demanding exclusivity over 2.5G spectrum. The reason being the mobile operators want to use WiMax mobile technology in the network, says EVS Chakravarthy, chief executive officer of YouTelecom, the company that provides high-speed data service. You Telecom has an ISP licence and like its fellow ISPs, it does not want the mobile operators to have monopoly on spectrum where WiMax technology will work. The spectrum allocation should be open to everybody and not to any group wedded to a particular telecom standard, he adds. People like Gurnani,however, insist WiMax will take another few years to stabilise and 3G has already established its roadmap through its releases.

But there is a catch in this prediction. If the government further delays spectrum allocation, or as per reports restricts it to maximum four operators, the operators left out will miss the 3G standard.

Here, we may see the next generation technology like WiMax overtaking 3G and establishing its presence in the Indian market, says Bhattacharya.