Voice & Data Tele­com CTO of the Year 2016

Voice&Data - - CONTENT - —Anil Tan­dan

Anil Tan­dan, CTO of Idea Cel­lu­lar and his team were suc­cess­ful in de­ploy­ing and man­ag­ing Idea’s rapidly grow­ing net­work in terms of sub­scriber base, reach, tech­nol­ogy, and ser­vices of­fered, giv­ing the com­pany a com­pet­i­tive edge to re­tain and grow mar­ket share and rev­enue.

The Spec­trum Game

The CTO’s role in the tele­com in­dus­try is com­plex and weighty. It di­rectly re­lates to strat­egy, growth, and customer sat­is­fac­tion. One of the most im­por­tant as­pects of the CTO role is to ad­vise busi­ness on spec­trum roadmaps by giv­ing tech­ni­cal in­puts to the busi­ness for spec­trum auc­tion. “Spec­trum is the raw ma­te­rial in the mo­bile ser­vices busi­ness so the CTO has to iden­tify and rec­om­mend the good spec­trum, cre­ate the right ecosys­tem around it, see which are the spec­trums used glob­ally and place the right bets that will en­sure growth for the com­pany. The CTO also must place the cor­rect bets, well in­formed nonethe­less, on which tech­nol­ogy to go in for, such 3G or 4G, and the right time to in­tro­duce them in the mar­ket,” says Tan­dan.

In­ter­est­ingly, the 3G and 4G auc­tions in In­dia hap­pened at the same time in 2010, com­pared to nowhere else in the world. Even then not much hap­pened for some years af­ter that. Things started hap­pen­ing only around 2015-16. The right time also de­pends on the readi­ness of the customer and the de­vel­op­ment of the ecosys­tem.

“The fu­ture is cen­tered on data and not voice... Fair com­par­i­son (among play­ers) would hap­pen when ev­ery­body starts charg­ing the customer... even­tu­ally prices would fall rather than rise.”

Tan­dan says that Idea Cel­lu­lar is wellplaced in terms of spec­trum ac­qui­si­tions fol­low­ing the 2016 auc­tions. Idea has 4G FDD spec­trum in 20 Cir­cles which in­clude 16 Cir­cles with TDD spec­trum also. 15 Cir­cles for 3G with U900 sec­ond car­rier in 2 Cir­cles. For its lead­er­ship cir­cles, it also has seven cir­cles with 10Mhz of con­tigu­ous 1800 MHz spec­trum. In 2015, when the 900 MHz spec­trum re­newal hap­pened, Idea bought ad­di­tional 900 MHz, though it was heav­ily priced. There was a well thought out rea­son: the in­tent was to launch a sec­ond car­rier for 3G in places such as Ma­ha­rash­tra and MP (where they al­ready had 2100 MHz) since 900 MHz gives bet­ter in-build­ing cov­er­age. Tan­dan’s team did mi­nor tweaks in GSM by di­al­ing down the UMTS from 5 MHz to 4.2 MHz, with­out any re­duc­tion in customer ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Back­haul & the Net­work

As you get into more data, the back­haul be­comes more im­por­tant. It is also the most dif­fi­cult and time-con­sum­ing part to im­ple­ment. Idea’s back­end is as good as Air­tel and Voda­fone if not more, claims Tan­dan. We have also done a lot of shar­ing and joint roll­outs to keep costs low, he adds.

For the back­haul, Idea was the pi­o­neer in in­tro­duc­ing OTN (op­ti­cal trans­fer net­work) al­most four years back. About 24 months back, Idea also im­ple­mented the 100Ghz ASON (au­to­matic switched op­ti­cal net­work). Idea was also one of the first to in­tro­duce 3G-4G syn­chro­niza­tion.

More im­por­tantly, Idea has been very fo­cused on in­tro­duc­ing two main el­e­ments— the ra­dio and the base­band in a SRAN (sin­gle ra­dio ac­cess net­work). Says Tan­dan, “In the SRAN, the ra­dio be­came multi-tech­nol­ogy (that is, on a 900 MHz or an 1800 MHz you could use mul­ti­ple tech­nolo­gies) al­most three years ago, but the base­band be­came multi-tech­nol­ogy only a year back. Which means that our equip­ment, both from a ra­dio and base­band per­spec­tive, be­comes mul­ti­tech­nol­ogy. Thus, we don’t have to change our hard­ware— us­ing the same equip­ment on 1800 MHz, you can switch from 3G to 4G or on 2100 MHz, you can switch from 4G to 3G or on a 900 MHz you can switch from 2G to 3G.” In fact, for one of the SRAN ven­dors, Idea was glob­ally the beta trial site for this new tech­nol­ogy.

The other im­por­tant part of what Idea did was the use of UWB (ul­tra wide­band) ra­dio. Ex­plains Tan­dan, “This is very use­ful for us in cer­tain cases. For ex­am­ple, in the Ra­jasthan cir­cle and Bi­har cir­cle, we have won both 1800 MHz and 2100 MHz spec­trum. So, if we want to roll out both 2G and 3G si­mul­ta­ne­ously, we would have needed sep­a­rate ra­dios. The UWB ra­dio is a sin­gle ra­dio that cov­ers both and we would start the roll­out next month.” Idea is the only com­pany to use UWB ra­dio as of now. The tech­nol­ogy costs less and is far more con­ve­nient to roll out. In the fu­ture, Idea sees the pos­si­bil­ity of

us­ing UWB ra­dio to bring to­gether 2300 MHz and 2500 MHz spec­trums.

Man­ag­ing Call Drop Woes

Still, the year 2016 would be mostly re­mem­bered as the year of call-drops. Early in the year, there was a huge out­cry about call drops. Says Tan­dan, “The is­sue of call drops was partly about per­cep­tion and partly about re­al­ity. But we had to sort the prob­lem. In my view, one of the key rea­sons for call drops were the switch over to a new spec­trum done by few ser­vice providers in the met­ros dur­ing De­cem­ber 2014 and Jan­uary 2015.” Added to that was the is­sue of site avail­abil­ity es­pe­cially in places like Lu­tyens Delhi, South Mum­bai, and ar­eas around de­fense es­tab­lish­ments.

Idea used a com­bi­na­tion of mea­sures to man­age call drops. The com­pany formed a strong team to fo­cus on qual­ity. The team did some com­mon-sense things like the drive test to iden­tify ar­eas with weak cov­er­age. In­ter­est­ingly, at many of th­ese ar­eas call drops were a re­cur­rent fea­ture at spe­cific spots or sites. The rem­edy was to build new sites at th­ese places. There were also cases where cell sites were down be­cause of loss of power. In such cases, Idea re­worked their agree­ment with the site ser­vice provider or tower com­pany for stricter SLAs re­gard­ing power out­age. Tan­dan also counts on help from the gov­ern­ment for al­low­ing COWs (cell-on-wheels) in ar­eas such as de­fense es­tab­lish­ments, es­pe­cially in cities like Delhi and Pune where the can­ton­ment ar­eas are within the city. In such cities, dis­con­ti­nu­ities in cell con­nec­tiv­ity could prove costly for ser­vice providers.

Gear­ing Up to the Data Op­por­tu­nity

For a long time, mo­bile ser­vices have been largely fo­cused on voice, but that’s changed now. The big­gest change in the tele­com in­dus­try is about the shift to data, data be­com­ing main­stream. Tan­dan says that al­though the shift started in 2011 with the launch of 3G, it is only in 2016 that the move started gath­er­ing mo­men­tum, pri­mar­ily due to the mass avail­abil­ity of low cost smart­phones and ex­pan­sion of the net­work.

Also, the en­try of Jio, which is a new player that is pri­mar­ily fo­cused on data with voice com­ing in as an add-on has ac­cel­er­ated the move to­wards data. Says Tan­dan, “The fu­ture is cen­tered on data and not voice. But it is too pre­ma­ture to de­cide the win­ner be­cause when some­one is of­fer­ing some­thing for free, it is not steady state. Fair com­par­i­son would hap­pen when ev­ery­body starts charg­ing the customer. But even­tu­ally prices would fall rather than rise.”

The good part is that the cur­rent con­text has made peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence data and it will open out the mar­ket for data and all op­er­a­tors would stand to gain in the long term. As the CTO, Tan­dan is deeply fo­cused on tak­ing Idea to the top slot in data. He ap­pre­ci­ates that the de­mands of the data-driven mo­bile ser­vices mar­ket are far dif­fer­ent. The pre­dom­i­nant ques­tion is— How do we build bet­ter data ex­pe­ri­ence? An­swer­ing this ques­tion re­quires work at all lev­els; it is not only about the net­work but also about de­vel­op­ing the right ecosys­tem of con­tent and com­mu­nity providers.

As the CTO, Tan­dan has set to work on the most crit­i­cal piece of the whole game: customer ex­pe­ri­ence man­age­ment. Idea has just em­barked on the jour­ney and signed on a ven­dor to de­liver a whole suite of so­lu­tions in customer ex­pe­ri­ence man­age­ment (CEM). While Tan­dan and his team have been eval­u­at­ing and study­ing the op­tions for more than two-and-a-half years now, the com­pany placed the or­der just only four months back. This is be­cause the area is rapidly evolv­ing and plac­ing the bets on some­thing old would make one re­dun­dant soon, Tan­dan says. The so­lu­tion feeds or draws data from the net­work as well as the ra­dio sys­tem and gives customer level in­for­ma­tion at the deep­est level.

Tan­dan feels that CEM is not a tech­nol­ogy-driven project alone; it needs ad­e­quate stake­hold­ing by busi­ness teams, es­pe­cially ser­vice de­liv­ery and mar­ket­ing. The CEM when op­er­a­tional would help the com­pany tran­si­tion from track­ing key per­for­mance in­di­ca­tors to qual­ity in­di­ca­tors to ar­riv­ing at a sub­scriber ex­pe­ri­ence in­dex.

On the net­work front, Tan­dan feels that Idea’s 4G roll­out has been the most ex­ten­sive and they are poised for any com­pet­i­tive re­sponse. The com­pany has been build­ing out other ar­eas of the dig­i­tal ecosys­tem such as get­ting ready for cash­less so­ci­ety, customer self-ser­vice, dig­i­tal con­tent. A sep­a­rate busi­ness unit headed by a C-level ex­ec­u­tive fo­cused on dig­i­tal ver­ti­cal has been cre­ated, Tan­dan said.

Dr Anand Agar­wal of Ster­lite Tech­nolo­gies (R) joins Dr Arvind Gupta, Na­tional Head - IT Cell, Bhar­tiya Janta Party and Dr Rahul Khullar, for­mer Chair­man, TRAI; in pre­sent­ing the Voice& Data CTO of the Year 2016 Award to Anil Tan­dan of Idea Cel­lu­lar. He...

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