By Dr. Jaijit Bhattacharya
Digital connectivity has leaped to become akin to a fundamental right, as painfully demonstrated during the Wuhan COVID pandemic, wherein not having digital connectivity implied not having access to education, work, and health thereby violating the right to life. As India has moved aggressively towards smart cities in the last nine years, it has become imperative that we bring in standards into the buildings of these smart cities, that enforce access to connectivity. Such a step will also have the collateral benefit of freeing up our cities from the ugly hanging wires that are endemic to cities of the developing world.
With a burgeoning upward mobile young population in India, the twin condition of high data consumption and the need for better living mandates that infrastructure be created that is natively smart rather than being retrofitted subsequently. The demand for data, as well as large, reconfigurable, and digitally enabled homes, has gone up substantially in the post-pandemic era. We also see trends of hybrid work, healthcare at home, especially palliative healthcare, in order to free up the tertiary healthcare infrastructure, hybrid education, increased online social activities, etc. Thus, all aspects of life now have a substantial component that is online. Needless to say, those without access to connectivity will have a significant disadvantage in participating in economic activities, thereby also dampening the overall GDP of the country.
For the last three decades, our focus was to grow the reach of mobile and data services – and rightly so. With approximately 900 million internet users, India has the 2nd largest user base in the world and could hit one billion well before 2025. This is an achievement of which we must be immensely proud. But now, we need to set and achieve higher goals. Indian users have already adopted a video-first approach to internet access, but the quality of our video streaming and network connectivity must catch up.
The more accurate measure of our network is how fast our videos download, the viewing experience of our consumers, and the responsiveness and efficiency of the OTT platform or app. This is a top priority right now, with rising content consumption and work from anywhere (WFA) emerging as a new normal.
Unfortunately, not just the video calls but also the voice calls inside the buildings are sub-optimal. The network coverage and signal strength must be strong to penetrate through the thick walls of the buildings, but they are too weak in India. Many of us walk around our buildings with a phone in hand, searching for a strong signal.
Since a large part of data consumption happens indoors (homes, offices, buildings, etc), it is imperative to streamline and facilitate mandatory installation of telecom cables/ optical fibers/ ducts as part of in-building solutions. Future technologies like the 6G, IoT, etc. are poised to provide better connectivity and services to the end-users. A huge jump in job opportunities and economic growth is foreseen if agile, high-volume access connectivity can be provided in closed indoors. This brings out the need for quality and robust telecom connectivity inside the buildings.
The forward-looking legal framework needs to be urgently reflected in the in-building solutions in India. First, telecom needs to be treated at par with other utilities in India. Incidentally, the Model Building Byelaws 2016 and National Digital Communication Policy 2018 have mentioned the need for ‘mandatory’ telecom ducts, cabling, and in-building solutions in all commercial, residential, and office spaces. This needs to be translated into on-ground regulations. Second, there need to be mechanisms in place to check the construction and implementation of the telecom in-building code. Last, the TRAI submitted its recommendations on the matter in 2017 and Feb 2023. This is the right time to implement these recommendations.
When the service provider seeks access to a building to install any telecom facility for providing telecom services to its residents, often they are faced with the challenges in accessing and installing telecommunications facilities in commercial /residential complexes and large public places like Airports, hotels, multiplexes, – it is seen that generally restrictive practices are adopted by building/premise owners while giving access to the building due to commercial interests. In many cases, the building owners enter into exclusive agreements with one of the service providers for providing telecom services to the consumers living or doing business from a particular location/ building/ society/ commercial complex, etc and deny access to their building(s) to other service providers, thus creating an artificial entry barrier for such service providers. Such practices not only limit competition but also leaves no choice to consumers except to avail services from the service provider with whom the contract is entered into, taking away choice and flexibility from the consumers which they would have had in terms of quality of service (QoS), tariff, redundancy, etc.
More importantly, what this leads to is a large number of snaking cables that not only degrade the buildings from an aesthetic perspective but also expose the connectivity to damage due to exposure. At best, such arrangements come under the category of “jugaad” and are a national loss due to the reduced life of the cables.
There is a need for mandating the usage of high-quality and standardized optical fiber cables and data cables, immune to bends. To ensure the best network quality, bend-insensitive fiber should be made as the minimum fiber type for in-home/inside the premises. Standards from ITU can be adopted for the same.
If India continues to deploy legacy fiber that degrades quickly in Indian conditions, the risk of network failure and incompatibility with future applications will increase. Legacy fiber has a lifetime of hardly 10 years due to its inability to withstand bends and quite high optical power loss, while buildings have a very long life. Hence, within a decade, we would again see snaking retrofitted cables all over buildings, that will be prone to cuts and damage.
Structured Cabling Solutions are enabling network convergence globally. As communication networks get smarter, network infrastructure needs to get simpler. The connected world needs a solution that converges power and data infrastructure to cater to triple-play services and power consumption demands of edge network assets, which all need structured cabling infrastructure. Further, with the need for smart building and automation, IoT is a significant enabler, that would again require high-quality category cable networks as well for them to operate.
Additionally, there are limited provisions in the existing guidelines to provide the minimum fire safety compliance confirmations as per the local and international standard guidelines. To reduce the risk of human causality and property damage during fire incidents, the cables (telecom cables such as optical fiber cables, category cables, etc) installed inside the building need to be fire retardant/fireproof and they need to have low smoke generation properties.
Cabling has a huge role to play in the propagation of fire, as faulty/ bad wiring is the most common reason for short circuits and a major reason why fire is able to cause so much damage to life and property, especially closed buildings.
India saw a very significant number of deaths countrywide in fire incidents in both public and residential buildings (according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)). Short circuits were one of the key causes of fire.
Selecting proper fire performance cabling infrastructure upfront provides assurance on the correct life cycle, safety, scalability, and flexibility. Hence, it is a critical segment where building codes should focus on enhanced security and safety. USA, European Union, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle East countries have made such standards mandatory for all types of cables to be deployed in indoor premises.
The construction of a building is a time-consuming and resource-intensive process. Once the construction has been completed, any alteration or deployment of external fixtures not only causes hardships, incurs additional costs to the residents but also damages the aesthetics of the building. It is therefore important to create enabling frameworks that facilitate the faster rollout of cabling infrastructure, i.e.fibre, category cables, with appropriate standards to boost indoor connectivity, for both greenfields as well as brownfield real estate projects.
This article first appeared in ET Government, https://government.economictimes.indiatimes.com/blog/revolutionizing-connectivity-embracing-mandatory-in-building-digital-infra/102126044
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