By Dr. Jaijit Bhattacharya
As India continues to embrace the digital age, the need for robust, reliable, and scalable telecommunications infrastructure becomes increasingly crucial. With its vast expanse and diverse population, India relies heavily on digital communication networks to connect people, businesses, and services across the country. As we all know, this was accentuated during the Wuhan COVID pandemic, a vital component of this infrastructure is the installation of optical fiber infrastructure.
Given that India has had explosive growth in highways in the last 9 years, propelling India to having the second highest road network growth in the world, the decades-long concept of fiber optic being laid along all existing national highways is, as is proverbially called, a no-brainer.
The internet demand in India is growing considerably every year. The active internet users are likely to grow nearly 45% to 900 million by 2025 compared to 622 million as of 2020. Remote geographies will have a higher number of internet users than urban centers by 2025, which indicates the need to strengthen the digital ecosystem in the country; the digital ecosystem must evolve to address the specific needs of this emerging demography.
Fortunately, most of the population is now connected by roads. Therefore, it is obvious that laying optical fiber along the roads would also connect most of the population digitally.
In a significant step towards improving connectivity and digital infrastructure across India, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) has already embarked on a project to deploy fiber optics along 25,000 kilometers of national highways by 2025. This ambitious initiative aims to bridge the digital divide, enhance internet penetration, and facilitate the rollout of next-generation technologies and services.
Furthermore, this project aligns with the Indian government’s vision of a digitally empowered nation. It complements other ongoing initiatives such as the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) and BharatNet, which aim to connect rural areas with high-speed internet and bridge the digital divide between urban and rural regions.
As this ambitious project progresses, it is expected to bring about a significant transformation in the connectivity landscape of India. By connecting the remotest corners of the country with high-speed internet, the initiative will open up new opportunities for economic growth, innovation, and overall development. With the MoRTH’s visionary efforts, India is well on its way to establishing a robust digital infrastructure that will empower its citizens and fuel the nation’s progress in the digital age.
The Indian government has a unique opportunity to further leverage its vast network of existing 1.44 lakh km of National Highways for creating a robust digital infrastructure at a lower cost compared to laying fiber on a greenfield basis. Integrating underground fiber cables along National Highways aligns with the government’s objective of integrated development through the Gatishakti Multi-Modal approach. It promotes the convergence of various sectors, including transportation, communication, and digital technology, creating a strong foundation for smart cities, e-commerce, e-healthcare, and other digital services.
One of the primary advantages of utilizing existing national highways for laying fiber optic cables is the significant reduction in the cost and time required for network expansion. Leveraging the existing infrastructure of highways eliminates the need for separate RoW (Right of Way) which is usually a significant procedural bottleneck, thereby streamlining the implementation process. Further optical network on highways is expected to deliver higher SLAs (Service Level Agreements or uptime of the network) thus improving the robustness of the network. This approach also minimizes disruptions to traffic and reduces environmental impact.
This essential infrastructure creation will also catalyze the development of smart cities and Internet of Things (IoT) applications. The increased connectivity will pave the way for the deployment of intelligent transportation systems, smart roads, smart street lighting, real-time monitoring of traffic and weather conditions, and other transformative technologies.
As the number of broadband connections in India inches towards the 900-million mark, the country appears to be on course for achieving the government’s vision of universal broadband. However, the encouraging numbers continue to mask a variety of digital divides—geographical, income-based, and gendered. Rectifying these imbalances is critical.
Leveraging the existing road network under National Highways will help in the development of quick, integrated telecom infrastructure. Our national highways, as critical arteries of transportation and commerce, must play an integral role in facilitating this digital infrastructure.
The fiber along national highways will also contribute to efficient traffic management and enhanced road safety. By deploying intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and intelligent traffic management systems (ITMS) that utilize real-time data communication, authorities can monitor traffic conditions, detect accidents or congestion, and respond promptly. This would enable effective traffic rerouting, reducing congestion and travel time. Additionally, the availability of high-speed internet along highways will facilitate the use of smart traffic lights, traffic surveillance systems, and other advanced technologies, enhancing road safety and reducing accidents.
With the implementation of data localization policies by the government, there is a need for storing and processing data within the country’s borders. This has led to a surge in the number of data centers being established across India. Data centers require robust connectivity to ensure seamless and efficient data transfer, and the higher fiber count optical fiber networks play a vital role in meeting this demand. Again, fiber along the highways will facilitate the setting up of the digital infrastructure required to power Digital India.
. As we roll out fiber in the country, it is important to make the same future-proof. Hence, high fiber count cables would be critical for creating a scalable infrastructure for the future.
Another important factor that should be looked at with this deployment scenario is the use of high-quality fiber to develop robust backhaul, middle-mile as well as last-mile connectivity. Such fiber may be a tad more expensive to procure than the lower quality fiber, but their total cost of ownership over the lifetime is much lesser than the low-quality fiber.
Therefore, it is crucial that national projects such as the projects envisaged by MoRTH and other flagship rural fiber connectivity projects by the Government such as BharatNet, do not use low-quality legacy fiber, which largely comes from China or are based on raw material from China, which are incapable of addressing future requirements of a ballooning digital demands of this country. In addition, such fibers have a lifetime of hardly 10 years due to their inability to withstand bends and significantly higher optical power loss. If India continues to deploy such fiber, the risk of network failure and incompatibility with future applications will increase.
Hence there is an urgent need to upgrade the minimum quality of optical fiber and optical fiber cable (OFC), to be deployed under National projects. The fiber which has a long life and is not susceptible to bends, is necessary for the harsh Indian on-ground conditions.
Thus leveraging the existing and upcoming road network to lay high-quality fiber would not only digitally connect the last person standing in this country, but will also create an economic competitive advantage for India for a long time to come.
This article first appeared in ET Government, https://government.economictimes.indiatimes.com/blog/optical-fiber-along-highways-to-boost-deployment-of-digital-infrastructure-across-the-country/102766597
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