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Operators assess technology options

March 31, 2011
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The June 2010 broadband wireless access (BWA) auction for two slots of pan-Indian licences of 20 MHz in each circle was a milestone for the Indian telecom industry besides adding Rs 385.4 billion to the government’s coffers. The auction, in which 11 companies bid through 117 rounds, fixed the price for a pan-Indian BWA licence at Rs 128.47 billion.

Bharti airtel, Infotel Broadband, Qualcomm, Aircel, Tikona Digital Networks and Augere emerged as the winners. The other bidders included Reliance WiMax, Idea Cellular, Spice Internet Service Provider, Tata Communications Internet Services and Vodafone Essar. Infotel Broadband was the only company to win BWA spectrum for all the 22 telecom circles.

Even as the country awaits the launch of BWA services (expected in the latter half of 2011), the industry is yet to decide the technology platform for service rollout. The increasing competition among broadband technologies has become apparent with Wi-Max and long term evolution time division duplex (LTE TDD) being pitched as rival technologies.

There are several possibilities for BWA licensees whether to deploy LTE TDD, Wi-Max, or a hybrid network (initially supporting Wi-Max with a migration path to LTE TDD).

Current status

Proponents of these technologies are following every move of the operators as their choices will decide the future uptake of Wi-Max and LTE TDD in the country. Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), which re-entered the telecom sector by acquiring a 95 per cent stake in Infotel Broadband for Rs 48 billion, is likely to offer BWA services through LTE TDD. Given that Infotel is the only company to have won pan-Indian spectrum, RIL’s decision on the technology front can be a game changer.

On the other hand, state-owned operators Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) have decided to take the Wi-Max route. BSNL may, however, migrate to LTE TDD if it emerges as the preferred technology in the country. According to the company, if a single player adopts a platform, it may be isolated from the interoperability and roaming perspective.

Even on the vendor front, companies are divided between these technologies. Promoters of both technologies have conducted trials in India to showcase the advantages offered by these platforms.

In a key development in December 2010, Samsung Electronics demonstrated high speed, next-generation, mobile Wi-Max capabilities through MTNL’s BWA spectrum. This was the first demonstration of 802.16m, an advanced version of Wi-Max, in India. The technology would be commercially available by end-2011. The International Telecommunication Union has categorised 802.16m as a 4G technology.

However, with LTE TDD in the BWA technology mix, Samsung is offering a solution which would allow operators to deploy the Wi-Max network initially and migrate to the LTE TDD platform later.

On the other hand, in October 2010, telecom equipment major Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) demonstrated its LTE TDD technology for the first time in India. The first video call was made through 4G mobile technology running on commercial hardware at NSN’s research and development facility in Bangalore.

During the test, NSN demonstrated high definition video streaming and three-way videoconferencing. Using interoperable LTE TDD dongles, a peak throughput speed of 110 Mbps and low latency in the range of 10-20 milliseconds was achieved.

In November 2010, RIL and network equipment vendor Ericsson demonstrated the LTE TDD mobile system technology in Mumbai. Peak speeds of 80 Mbps in the downlink and 20 Mbps in the uplink were recorded for the specified configuration under the test environment. The ecosystem capabilities were also showcased using ST Ericsson dongles connected to the base station. Full mobility with the delivery of applications such as high definition multimedia streaming and live television was demonstrated with on-the-move speeds of 50-70 km per hour.

Though the industry remains divided over the choice of technology, service providers have started planning BWA rollouts to optimise expensive spectrum. The following is a snapshot of their plans and probable technology choices.


While most other BWA spectrum winners are still undecided about their technology platform, RIL has gone a step ahead by announcing that it would roll out 4G services on the LTE TDD platform across the country in December 2011.

The company is reportedly planning to invest $1 billion in BWA service rollout in India. Currently, the operator is evaluating proposals from network equipment manufacturers and service providers in association with Rancore. In December 2010, Rancore had invited requests for information from equipment manufacturers like NSN, Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei and ZTE.

Also, the company has been testing LTE TDD equipment kits from Ericsson, Huawei and Alcatel-Lucent, and will select vendors in the next two months.


BSNL and MTNL were allotted a block of 20 MHz spectrum each for BWA services in 2008, more than a year ahead of private operators. After the auctions, BSNL had to match the winning bid for each circle and paid Rs 83.13 billion to the government.

The operator has committed to the Wi-Max technology standard and has opted for the franchise model on a revenue sharing basis for rolling out BWA services in the country.

BSNL also has a back-up plan in case other operators opt for the LTE TDD platform. It has introduced a clause in the contracts of Teracom, Take Solutions, Adishwar India and Ampoules that will be building the operator’s network, mandating a shift to LTE TDD if it emerges as the successful technology platform in India.

BSNL has installed around 1,600 Wi-Max base stations in the past two years and plans to set up another 20,000 units over the next three years. While the operator has adopted the franchise model for urban rollout, rural Wi-Max deployment is being undertaken by the operator itself with government support. It has deployed 827 base stations under the first phase of the rural project. About 10,279 rural common service centres and 14,591 village panchayats have already been covered under this project.

Under the urban project, 348 Wi-Max base stations have been deployed in Kerala, 335 in Punjab, 25 in Andhra Pradesh and 33 each in Maharashtra and Gujarat on a franchise basis.

The operator plans to commercially roll out Wi-Max networks in urban areas by end-March 2011. It is aiming at a subscriber base of 200,000 in the first year of operations and initially intends to launch services in the major cities only.


MTNL was allotted BWA spectrum in 2008 and paid Rs 110.97 billion for licences for the Delhi and Mumbai circles, matching the winning bids for these circles. Like BSNL, the operator has opted for Wi-Max technology. It has adopted an asset-light approach to the BWA rollout and plans to launch services based on the revenue sharing model.

In 2010, it invited expressions of interest from private players for Wi-Max network deployment on a revenue sharing basis.

The operator planned to select one successful bidder in each circle for the deployment and operation of the Wi-Max  IEEE 802.16e standard. The bidding process, however, failed to generate any interest, with Prithvi Info Solutions, a Hyderabad-based software firm, emerging as the sole participant.


Qualcomm won BWA spectrum in Delhi, Mumbai, Kerala and Haryana at a cost of Rs 49.12 billion through one of its Indian subsidiaries, Wireless Broadband Business Services Private Limited. Qualcomm holds a 74 per cent stake in the broadband venture and has offloaded the remaining 26 per cent to the Global Holding Corporation and Tulip Telecom (each owning 13 per cent).

Soon after entering the Indian broadband market, the company announced its plan to roll out services on the LTE TDD platform. In November 2010, Qualcomm demonstrated LTE TDD in the 2.3 GHz band in India. The test used radio access network and evolved packet core  solutions from Ericsson, and USB dongles based on Qualcomm’s MDM9x00 multimode chipset, which supports both LTE and 3G.

However, the company and its subsidiaries are planning to quit the BWA venture after deploying the LTE TDD network for service rollout.

Tikona Digital Networks

Tikona, which launched BWA services using the unlicensed 5.8 MHz spectrum for home and business users even before the BWA auctions, paid Rs 10.58 billion for BWA spectrum in the Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh (East and West), Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh circles. The company, like RIL, intends to deploy the LTE TDD platform. Also, industry experts are of the view that RIL may sell BWA services to other licensees that would be willing to expand to other circles; and therefore, the adoption of the same technology platform in order to avail of interoperability and roaming services is justified.

Tikona serves the home and enterprise segments under the Tikona Wi-Bro and Tikona Enterprise Solutions brands respectively. It currently offers services in 30 cities including Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi and Kolkata. The company has ambitious expansion plans and is preparing to offer wireless services in 150 cities by end-2011.

The company intends to use the expensive  licensed spectrum to connect consumer premises with the service provider exchange, thereby replacing optic fibre cables.  According to analysts, Tikona has competitive advantages like low opex owing to unlicensed spectrum and customised technology.

Bharti airtel

Bharti airtel acquired BWA licences in four circles for $706 million. The company has not announced any plans for rolling out BWA services in the country.

However, by launching the Global LTE TDD Initiative with global players like China Mobile, Softbank Mobile, Vodafone, Clearwire, E-Plus and Aero2 in February 2011, it has shown its interest in the TDD LTE platform. The company will focus on promoting the development of the technology and convergence of LTE TDD and FDD LTE modes to maximise economies of scale as well as sharing the ecosystem with other TDD technologies like Japan’s eXtended Global Platform.

Aircel and Augere

Aircel, which won BWA spectrum for eight circles for Rs 34.38 billion, is yet to decide the technology platform for service rollout. If the company rolls out both LTE TDD and Wi-Max, it may use some spectrum for Wi-Max and the remaining for LTE TDD, once the latter’s terminals become available.

Mauritian company, Augere has won BWA spectrum for the Madhya Pradesh circle for Rs 1.24 billion. The company will need to find a local partner for starting its Indian business. Augere has reportedly decided to take the LTE TDD route and is set to expand to other circles in India with funding from Orange. Therefore, it is more likely to adopt the dominant technology for roaming alliances.


With a little over 10 million subscribers, the country’s broadband penetration continues to be dismal. Given the lack of fixed line infrastructure in the country, BWA services are likely to provide a much-needed fillip to broadband penetration in the country.

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