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Powertel: Extending its telecom reach

August 11, 2014
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Powertel, the telecom arm of power transmission company Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (Powergrid), has made steady progress in the telecom sector. The company is  a leading infrastructure service provider, with a large portfolio of tower and optic fibre cable (OFC) assets across the country.

At present, Powertel operates about 29,640 km of OFC network with 317 points of presence (PoPs) and has access to 150,000 towers of Powergrid. The roll-out of high-bandwidth OFC networks has helped the company improve its operational efficiency and performance through automation and remote monitoring of various transmission lines and substations. Given its extensive telecom network, Powertel has also been involved in crucial government projects such as the National Knowledge Network (NKN) and the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN).

Powergrid’s continued focus on expanding its telecom business has resulted in higher revenues. Its income from the telecom business increased at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20 per cent from Rs 1.67 billion in 2009-10 to Rs 2.88 billion in 2013-14. Meanwhile, profit before tax (PBT) grew at 43 per cent CAGR from Rs 70 million to Rs 940 million during the same period. Powertel also performed well on the operational front during 2013-14. It added 27 PoPs and maintained 99.94 per cent backhaul network availability. It also acquired 32 new clients – 21 private companies and 11 government institutions.

Background and current operations

Powergrid ventured into the telecom industry in 2001, with a primary focus on rolling out an OFC network. The aim was to utilise the spare telecom capacity of its unified load dispatch centre and communication facilities. In the first phase of its plan, the company deployed OFC over its Delhi-Chandigarh transmission network and subsequently over an 882 km transmission link between Delhi and Mumbai, in the second phase. With the roll-out of 6 km of fibre cable per day, Powertel established an OFC network of about 19,500 km by 2006-07 and 25,000 km by 2011-12. The rapid expansion of the OFC network within a short period can be attributed to the right of way granted by the government under the Indian Telegraph Act.

Powertel has laid most of its OFC (19,677 km) in the optical ground wire (OPGW) configuration over its parent company’s transmission network, in order to leverage its existing infrastructure. One of the key reasons for using this configuration is that fibre cable remains stable, robust and protected against rodents and recurrent road digging, which results in cuts on underground cables (underground OFC currently accounts for only about 33 per cent of the total network of  Powertel). Moreover, the OPGW configuration enables faster roll-out of fibre cable because it does not require RoW and forest clearances. Further, OPGW cable deployment, which is suitable for 132 kV transmission lines, is carried out through live-line stringing, without interrupting power flow through the transmission line.

Other overhead configurations adopted by the company are wrap-around overhead, where OFC is wrapped around the ground wire, and all dielectric self-supporting (ADSS), where the fibre cable is strung separately on transmission towers as conductors. The ADSS configuration is suitable for transmission lines of up to 220 kV. Like OPGW, the ADSS cable configuration can be installed without disrupting power flow and is easy to commission, maintain and expand.

To expand its telecom business further, Powertel acquired a national long distance operator licence in 2006, to offer backhaul network services to telecom service providers. The objective was to leverage the extensive OFC network, especially in the remote areas of Himachal Pradesh, the Northeast, and Jammu & Kashmir, where private telecom service providers do not have their own infrastructurre. It started offering leased circuits, internet bandwidth (ranging from E1 to 10 G), MPLS-VPN, etc. This has enabled Powertel to sign contracts with several companies across various industries, including banking, education, health care, information technology and defence, to provide backhaul fibre connectivity. Its clients include operators such as Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), Reliance Communications, Tata Teleservices Limited, Vodafone India and Idea Cellular; banks such as ICICI Bank and HSBC; and government agencies such as the National Informatics Centre and the Intelligence Bureau.

The company also started leasing out space on Powergrid’s towers to operators for the installation of base transceiver stations. However, so far the response of operators has been lacklustre, given that the incumbent operators already have large portfolios of tower assets and new service providers have limited their operations due to the cancellation of licences. In the future, the latter may opt for Powertel’s towers if they intend to expand operations in low-ARPU and remote areas.

Leveraging backhaul network to implement remote monitoring

Powertel has set up a national-level network operations centre in Delhi with a dedicated network management station for monitoring the network round the clock. It has also established regional telecom centres in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru.

To further improve the operational efficiency of transmission lines and substations, Powertel is planning to set up state-of-the-art computerised control centres – National Transmission Asset Management Centre (NTAMC) and Regional Transmission Asset Management Centre (RTAMC) – for enabling remote operations, monitoring and control of Powergrid’s transmission network. Powergrid intends to operate substations from the NTAMC, while the RTAMC will be used for coordinating substation maintenance and will be used as a backup to the NTAMC. Meanwhile, a Maintenance Service Hub will be used for carrying out maintenance work at the three to four substations in its vicinity. The substations and control centres will be connected through Powertel’s OFC network. The NTAMC is expected to ensure greater coordination in interregional power flow, quicker collection and evaluation of data from substations, and reduce opex.

Powertel is also setting up an enterprise resource planning system for integrating the group’s offices and substations across geographically different regions. To this end, the company intends to use a high speed backhaul network to ensure reliable and secure connectivity to these regions.

Government projects

Powertel has been involved in two major telecom government projects – the NKN and NOFN. The Rs 60 billion NKN project is a high speed pan-Indian broadband network which connects 1,500 government, education, research and health care institutions across the country through high speed core links (10 Gbps), district headquarter links (1 Gbps) and edge links (100 Mbps/1 Gbps). Powertel was contracted as a service provider for offering core/distribution links of 10 Gbps bandwidth. Powertel received revenues of Rs 6.4 billion from the project till March 2013 and is expected to earn Rs 9 billion from it over the next 10 years.

Powertel is implementing the NOFN project along with BSNL and RailTel. The project aims to provide high speed broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats  across the country through the roll-out of an incremental fibre network at a revised cost of Rs 250 billion. Powertel’s scope of work includes rolling out a fibre network in 36,000 gram panchayats in Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha. The work is to be carried out in 89 districts covering 1,769 villages. The company completed a pilot project in Parwada block in Visakhapatnam district, Andhra Pradesh, in 2012. In the first phase of the NOFN project, the company will connect 15,000 gram panchayats.

The way forward

In the near term, Powertel’s top priority will be to implement the NOFN project in the allocated states, as the project is already behind schedule. The company will also need to make concerted efforts to improve utilisation levels at its tower sites. This should not be a difficult task considering that it has substantial telecom infrastructure in remote areas, which are expected to drive growth in the voice service segment in the future.

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