There’s a lot of talk going around network speeds in the country, the health of the telecom industry and how India is gearing up for 5G, the next-generation mobile technology. Doug Suttles, CEO and Co-founder, Ookla, discusses these issues, in a conversation with Ramesh Kumar Raja. He also talks about Ookla’s mission to make the internet better, faster and more accessible for everyone. Excerpts:
There’s a paradigm shift in internet usage and data consumption in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic owing to online learning and remote working. In such a situation, how do you look at the internet speed trends in India?
When you look at Speedtest Intelligence data over the past year, median fixed broadband download speeds in India rose from 25.79 Mbps in Q2 2020 to hit a high of 39.31 Mbps in Q2 2021. Upload speeds have shown a similar scale increase, and latencies continue to improve. This is a testament to the level of investment being made by network operators in migrating from older technologies, such as DSL to fiber.
For mobile broadband, it’s a similar story. Mobile is the dominant access technology in India, and while it lags fixed-line networks in terms of absolute median speeds, we’ve seen some recent bumps in performance as operators have acquired and deployed additional spectrum. Over the last year, Indian mobile internet speeds have increased from 7.42 Mbps to 10.56 Mbps (as of Q2 2021).
In your Speedtest Global Index for January 2021, India retained its position on the broadband speed front, whereas it fell in the mobile internet speed. Where are we lacking and how can we improve the existing scenario?
For fixed broadband, continued deployment of fiber will push India up the Ookla Speedtest Global Index. It’s clear there’s a lot of development on that front, with Airtel planning to shut down its copper network in early 2022, Jio’s JioFiber is now installed in 3 million active homes, and the Government’s BharatNet optical fiber project is now being extended to include partnerships with private companies. On the mobile side, spectrum has been a bottleneck for Indian operators, as well as backhaul and transport infrastructure. Freeing up more spectrum for mobile use, in particular via the upcoming 5G auction, will help propel India further up the Global Index. Progress is being made, which can be seen when you look at the data from the Speedtest Global Index in June. India climbed 6 places in mobile internet speeds, and 3 for fixed broadband speeds.
|“I’m positive about the outlook for internet speeds in India. There’s already evidence that the country is on a positive trajectory, and I see a clear desire to be at the forefront of next-generation network technologies. This is shown by the moves to embrace Open RAN and network virtualization by all three mobile operators”|
What is your outlook for India in the post-COVID era?
I’m positive about the outlook for internet speeds in India. There’s already evidence that the country is on a positive trajectory, and I see a clear desire to be at the forefront of next-generation network technologies. This is shown by the moves to embrace Open RAN and network virtualization by all three mobile operators, the Government’s Make in India initiative and the Indian Telecom Standard Body’s recent submission of its 6G vision to the ITU.
However, this positivity hinges on several factors playing out. 5G will bring enhanced mobile broadband speeds for both consumers and enterprises – a real step-change over current 4G-LTE networks in the country. 5G will provide the bandwidth and latency to enjoy uninterrupted access to services such as high-definition video streaming, mobile gaming and video calling on the go. Nevertheless, the already delayed auction needs to take place, and most importantly, mobile operators need to acquire sufficient spectrum at a price that doesn’t inhibit their ability to invest.
The 5G era in India is likely to be one of stability. Waves of industry consolidation have resulted in three similarly placed national mobile networks. Due to this, we’re unlikely to see a return to the price wars of the early 4G era, which is important in ensuring adequate re-investment in networks.
What is the current MAU Ookla has till date in 2021 and what would be the next target for you by the end of this year?
Every month, millions of users across India test their networks with Speedtest by Ookla. With ongoing investment in fixed and mobile networks and the upcoming 5G launch in 2022, we fully expect that Speedtest will play an increasingly important role in helping Indian consumers understand their network’s performance.
Do you think 4G availability is up to the mark, especially post-consolidation in the Indian telecom sector?
According to Speedtest Intelligence data, 4G availability is growing, with our 4G Service metric (the % of known operator locations where a device has access to 4G-LTE) increasing from 93.5% in Q4 2020 to 96% in Q2 2021. The critical component here is spectrum availability, particularly in coverage bands (below 1GHz). This past March, Indian operators consolidated their holdings of spectrum in these coverage bands via auction. While this has helped drive 4G availability, there were no bids at the reserve price for spectrum in the 700Mhz band, which has better coverage properties. If this is allocated during the forthcoming auction, it will help drive 4G service closer to 100%.
What’s your opinion about Reliance Jio’s market disruption followed by the Vodafone-Idea merger and Airtel falling in line after years of dominance?
Telecoms is a scale game, and as such, having three large national mobile operators should bode well for the Indian market, providing the right blend of competition and investment. The 5G era in India should be one of growing stability for mobile operators and the regulator, where the price wars that occurred during the 4G tech cycle are consigned to history.
However, progress won’t be easy. It’s a big year ahead for TRAI and the new Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who will have to oversee a 5G auction and deliver an optimal outcome not only for the State, but also ensure operators can invest adequately in 5G. Beyond that, the major issue of Vi India’s liquidity issues needs to be resolved. It will also be interesting to see to what degree Jio pivots from being the disruptive player in the market to more of an established incumbent, particularly when it comes to 5G pricing.
|“It’s a big year ahead for TRAI and the new Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who will have to oversee a 5G auction and deliver an optimal outcome not only for the State, but also ensure operators can invest adequately in 5G. Beyond that, the major issue of Vi India’s liquidity issues needs to be resolved”|
The issue of call drop still persists in India and there seems to be no solution to it. What’s your opinion?
Mobile networks are constantly evolving in order to manage the exponential growth in capacity demand, which is never static in one place. In population-dense environments like India, engineering and optimization of these networks become that much more difficult. Traditionally, Ookla’s suite of products has helped mobile operators detect and troubleshoot network issues to improve mobile network performance. We’re keen to play a larger role, and with our recent acquisition of Solutelia and its flagship WINd software suite, Ookla now provides solutions to support operators through each stage of mobile network planning, site verification, monitoring, optimization and performance assurance. We enable MNO engineers in the field to pinpoint the exact cause of data and voice-related connectivity issues, measure the quality of voice and video with supported industry-standard algorithms and perform focused actions to mitigate any issues.
There is a lot of buzz around the upcoming 5G network in India. Is it going to be another disruptor in the telecom space? Is India ready to take on the initial challenges of 5G implementation?
5G will be very different from 4G in terms of industry disruption, which will be good news for Indian telcos. The increased bandwidth that 5G brings will enable service providers to develop more innovative end-user services, rather than competing mainly on price. In addition, 5G is bringing much more disruption to the network infrastructure space with the move to Open RAN, as well as network virtualization and automation introducing new competitors to the market and disrupting incumbents.
The delay in India’s 5G spectrum auction has focused telcos’ minds on improving the end-customer experience by strengthening their existing 4G LTE networks. However, as much as 4G LTE networks will remain important for the foreseeable future, 5G networks are essential to cater to the growing demand in services such as video streaming and mobile gaming. Despite the delay, it’s clear that there’s a lot of work already going on behind the scenes to help drive 5G commercialization once the spectrum becomes available. All three major network operators are busy conducting 5G trials and have achieved impressive 5G speeds. Additionally, Airtel has already started to roll out 5G-ready network equipment and Jio is testing its own 5G Open RAN solutions in several cities.
What sort of changes are we going to see with the 5G network?
The starkest change Indian users will see from early 5G networks will be their speed. One of the key benefits of 5G is that it can operate over a wider range of spectrum frequencies than LTE. India’s government plans to allocate a wide band of 275 MHz of spectrum in the 3.3-3.6 GHz range (C-Band), which will offer much greater capacity than existing spectrum used for LTE services.
If we look at other markets in the Asia Pacific that have recently launched 5G (Thailand and the Philippines both launched 5G in Q1 2020), the differential between 4G-LTE and 5G speeds was on average between 9-10x in Q2 2021. It’s impossible to say exactly how fast 5G will be for the average Indian user, given uncertainty over exact spectrum allocations and rollout plans (including the radio access network, but also improvements to backhaul and transport networks). However, it’s safe to say that 5G will bring a considerable bump to speeds in the country.
What kind of customization Ookla has to offer for Indian users?
Ericsson’s latest Mobility Report ranks the Indian market as one of the regions with the highest mobile data use per smartphone globally, at 14.6GB per month. This is well above the global average of 9GB. We’re focused on delivering new features to help consumers better understand their connected experiences and how that compares locally and globally. To that end, we recently announced video testing from Speedtest (available on both our iOS and Android apps), allowing users to measure the quality of their video streaming experience.
What are Ookla’s key business strategies for the India market?
Ookla’s mission is to make the internet better, faster and more accessible for everyone. Additionally, Speedtest Awards, presented by Ookla, are an elite designation reserved for fixed and mobile providers in a market. Based on consumer-initiated tests and background scans from Speedtest applications, Speedtest Awards represent real-world network performance and the internet speeds and coverage provided to customers.