As India is celebrating its completion of 25 years of the internet, Vivek Raina, Co-Founder and CEO, Excitel, speaks about the role of broadband networks and how his company is making inroads into Indian homes, in a conversation with Ramesh Kumar Raja. Excerpts:
How do you look at the global scenario of the broadband networks and what is its status in India?
Globally in the developed and most of the developing world, wireline broadband is very much a utility like electricity, water and gas. So, almost every household is connected to the internet through a wireline connection. The technology and thereby type of wire used to connect in the past varied from region to region, from Docsis in USA to DSL in western Europe to Metro Ethernet in other places. That also is changing now and the whole world is moving to Fiber to the home.
India has been at the bottom of the charts in terms of wireline penetration, with 2 crore connections for a population of 130 crore. Wireline broadband in India was restricted to pockets of major cities without much proliferation anywhere else. Due to a variety of factors including high taxation, dirt cheap mobile data etc., the growth over the last few years was negligible in the sector. It finally took lockdown induced by COVID-19 to trigger growth, as people realized the importance of home broadband for all their important activities, like work from home or study from home etc.
The COVID-19 lockdown came as a blessing in disguise for internet service providers in India. How has been the experience so far for Excitel?
COVID-19 basically made people realize the importance of home broadband and how mobile data is insufficient and can’t be used for work from home or attending school from home or even consuming entertainment at home. So yes, the demand has significantly picked up for all wireline internet providers, including Excitel.
We have added approx. 1 lakh users since the restrictions related to COVID-19 started getting implemented.
At the same time, maintaining customer experience has been a big challenge in these times, with our backend teams working from home, field engineers and partner staff not able to move freely around the town for rectification of issues due to restriction etc, resolving user issues in time and maintaining customer experience has been challenging. Having said that, we are putting a lot of efforts to deliver high quality services in spite of the issues on the ground.
Were you prepared for such an increase in internet consumption? What steps did you take to cater to the burgeoning demand?
Excitel backend was designed delivering high quality video services and was thereby ready for increased demand. Our 8,000 kms of self healing fiber backbone network was also designed to cater to masses and was therefore also ready for increased demands. Our strong vendor partnerships ensured that we could keep the flow of customer premise equipment, going even when demand started skyrocketing and severe restrictions were still in place. We had to though increase our uplink capacities which were not ready for such demand, this we achieved in the first two weeks after the lockdown was announced.
Which region/city/town saw maximum broadband consumption and what was its pattern?
We have witnessed almost uniform increase in broadband consumption across territories and regions during these times. Since people were confined to their homes, they started spending much more time on the internet than before. Added to it, the shift to work for from home, school for home etc. meant that average bandwidth consumption increased at least by 50%. As I said, it was mainly heavy video streaming applications besides video conferencing applications which were drivers for this growth.
With OTT subscription becoming the order of the day, do you offer any such subscription or have any plan for collaborations?
We are working on various such collaborations and partnerships, which will be rolled out in due course of time.
What are the distinct products and services you offer and how they are contributing to the government’s digital initiatives?
Our focus from last one year has been to deliver world class Fiber to home services to all areas of urban India, irrespective of demography and paying capacity.
Traditional telcos and ISPs have been focusing on specific portions of cities for years while leaving 70% of cities uncatered. We are trying to change this and want to roll-out our high speed Fiber to home services at affordable rates in all nooks and corners of urban India, thereby bringing real digital inclusion to areas containing 70% of population of our cities. This is completely in line with the government’s Digital India plan, and through our efforts we are giving our humble contribution to it.
Privacy on the internet is an issue of concern. What’s your approach to it?
While on our backend we have our firewalls etc for blocking attempts at undue intrusions etc, on the front end we keep on implementing various guidelines proposed by the government and TRAI regarding it.
What is India’s futuristic approach to fiber driven networks? Do you find systemic flaws, if any, that need to be corrected or revamped?
I think Fiber to the home is the future of broadband and we need to convert all our networks to fiber in the next few years.
We at Excitel are installing 70% of our new connections on FTTH, and by the end of this, year we plan to stop sales on legacy copper all together.
By the end of 2021, we would have converted all of existing legacy users to fiber as well thereby becoming 100% FTTH company.
I also see all other serious players in the game are also waking up to the inevitability of FTTH and have started some roll-out plans.
Where do you see the future of broadband networks going, especially in the age of mobile networks? What advancements can we see ahead?
As COVID-19 induced lockdown has proven, wireline broadband is a basic utility service like water and electricity for a household. Mobile networks though good for social media and basic productivity/communication applications are highly insufficient for heavy bandwidth applications that work from home, school from home or video streaming at home requires. So irrespective of advancement in mobile networks, wireline broadband networks are here to stay and can’t be replaced.
The advancement will be led by fiber delivery, once you have a fat fiber pipe inside a house hold, there is theoretically no limit to applications and services you can run through it as unlike traditional copper, there is really no limitation in amount of bandwidth you can deliver to a household with fiber.
“Mobile networks though good for social media and basic productivity/communication applications are highly insufficient for heavy bandwidth applications that work from home, school from home or video streaming at home requires. So irrespective of advancement in mobile networks, wireline broadband networks are here to stay and can’t be replaced”
There is too much competition in this sector, with bigger players eating the maximum share. How do you deal with it to be a prominent player in your space?
Bigger players have been focusing on 30% of areas in our cities and towns, as their broadband rollouts are concerned.
Their focus has been high ARPU areas besides areas having structured buildings and back lanes etc. Rest of the areas where in fact 70% of population of urban India lives, the Bharat has always been neglected in terms of broadband roll-out. Excitel is trying to reverse this by bringing world class fiber services at affordable rates to Bharat and there we don’t really face competition from bigger players.
What are the challenges for Excitel?
The biggest challenge for Excitel is to scale our world Fiber to home services across hundreds of towns and cities in India, while achieving and maintaining great quality of service. We want to have real Digital inclusion for millions of Indians living in Bharat through our affordable fiber services.