Customers of Vodafone and Idea networks will notice an improvement in their 4G experience in coming weeks, especially in areas like Mumbai and Delhi, as the company starts deploying massive amounts of cash to improve the networks in such areas.
The network improvement will be done via several methods — by deploying extra spectrum, technological upgrade and by combining the Idea and Vodafone network into one.
The company started off the process of combining the Idea and Vodafone networks back in December, when West Bengal became the first zone in India where Vodafone and Idea users were put on the same network.
By the last week of January, West Bengal was followed by states like Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, North East, AP & Telangana (excluding Hyderabad), J&K, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. It also merged the 4G network of Idea and Vodafone 4G networks in Bangalore.
The process is being carried out in all other states in a ‘cluster by cluster’ approach, with the networks in areas seeing the least traffic, such as rural zones, being integrated first.
“We have seen very clear improvements in terms of the speeds that we have been able to offer,” CEO Balesh Sharma said about the move. Since the process is going on area by area in the remaining circles, more and more users will see an improvement every day, he added.
Disappointingly, this work is being done starting from the areas of the least traffic and complexity and moving slowly to those that see the highest amount of traffic and congestion, such as the inner city areas of Mumbai and Delhi.
It will take another 12 months or so for it to reach the inner city of Mumbai and Delhi — by Jan-March or Apr-June of 2020 — Sharma added. Smaller cities like Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata will be done before that.
Combining the two networks immediately results in a speed boost to customers as their handsets can hop between, or simultaneously tap into, multiple blocks of spectrum.
While Idea or Vodafone may have only 1 or 2 carriers of 4G in an area, after the integration, the combined network will have 3 or 4 carriers.
A customer’s handsets can access any of these four blocks depending on which one is the least congested.
Secondly, integration creates a lot of extra equipment which can be used to further increase the network capacity.
This is because a single LTE base station can handle four blocks of spectrum.
So, instead of having two sets of base stations handling two sets of spectrum for Idea and Vodafone, all four carriers can be handed over to a single tower without reducing the capacity in any way.
When deciding whether to remove the Idea or Vodafone base station in an area, the company can retain the one with better backhaul fiber connectivity, thus improving the experience for users of the other network.
Vodafone Idea said it has taken down 26,400 base stations under the network optimization drive in the three months from September to December of last year. A total of 66,000 will eventually be purged.
As a result of all this, the number of 4G base stations that are radiating Vodafone 4G signals has jumped to 114,000 by December from 85,000 in September.
Similarly, the number of 4G base stations that are part of the Idea 4G network has jumped to 104,000 from 80,000 over the same four months.
The total number of unique, 4G-enabled base stations operated by the company is estimated to be between 140,000 to 150,000 as of the end of December.
In comparison, Reliance Jio is estimated to have around 300,000, while Bharti Airtel’s number is likely to be closer to that of Vodafone Idea.
The reason the company has kept its merger plan for congested areas for the last is because of a lack of spare capacity that can be used to protect against any disruption to customers while the merger is going on.
Because it takes a few days of testing and fine-tuning for the merger to take place, doing it on a network under full load — like in Mumbai or Delhi — will inevitably lead to outages and other problems for customers.
As such, Vodafone Idea has decided to create spare capacity in these areas first before attempting to merge the two networks.
This will be done by adding more spectrum to the existing network as well as introducing advanced technologies.
The extra spectrum will come from two sources — diversion of 3G and 2G airwaves, and the 2.5 GHz band that is lying largely unused at present.
Out of these, it will be the 2.5 GHz band — also known as capacity band — that will contribute the most to the increased capacity.
Sharma said the process of deploying 2.5 GHz spectrum, acquired in 2016, is already well under way in congested areas like Mumbai and Delhi.
During October-December 2018, the company added 11,123 4G sites to its network, and out of these 9,066 were in the capacity bands of 2.5 GHz and 2.3 GHz.
The company has 2.5 GHz capacity spectrum in nearly all the circles, while it has 2.3 GHz capacity spectrum in Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh.
While the 1800 MHz spectrum — the mainstay of Vodafone Idea’s 4G network — typically offers speeds of between 3 to 8 Mbps for users in modest traffic conditions, the 2500 MHz will take this to 15-25 Mbps.
Sharma said the creation of extra capacity in the metros is a ‘priority’.
Part of the reason for the current situation is the delay in getting the Vodafone-Idea merger approved by the DoT.
Because of the delay, the company was not able to place orders for the equipment until late last year, even as others like Bharti Airtel and Jio have been creating capacity in metro areas in a steady fashion.
“It was only towards the end of end of November that we completed negotiations with vendors for radio access network, a lot which has been ordered at the end of last quarter,” he said.
“Orders have been placed now.. A lot of it will be coming in,” he said.
By next month, he said, the total carrying capacity of Vodafone Idea’s 4G networks in India would be up 50% compared to September, and most of the incremental capacity will come in areas like Mumbai and Delhi, where users already face congestion problems.
The third way in which the company is trying to improve the capacity of its 4G networks is by diverting spectrum from its 2G and 3G networks.
It said it plans to utilize about half of its 900 MHz spectrum in many circles for 4G, as more and more users move their voice consumption to VoLTE from 2G.
It will also try to merge the 2G holdings of Vodafone and Idea in the 1800 band — also known as the second 2G band — and try to squeeze out extra spectrum for 4G.
“In Mumbai, for instance, we consolidated the liberalized 1800 MHz spectrum of Vodafone and Idea and carved out one additional carrier for 4G. This has improved the user experience,” Sharma said.
Finally, it will merge the 3G networks of the two networks in the 2100 MHz band and divert the surplus spectrum to the 4G network as well. This will make it the only company to extensively use the 2100 MHz band for 4G service in India, along with BSNL.
Finally, the company will invest around Rs 20,000 cr over the next one year to deploy advanced solutions like Massive MIMO antennas (already used by Airtel and Jio), small cells and to increase its fiber penetration.
This is in addition to redeploying about Rs 6,500 cr worth of surplus equipment taken down as part of the de-duplication exercise. In all, the network will get a Rs 26,500 cr overhaul.
As a result of all this, the total carrying capacity of the network will rise 2.5 times by March next year compared to Sepember 2018. More importantly, much of the new capacity will come in congested areas like Mumbai and Delhi, instead of in remote areas where utilization levels are still low, the company said.