Vodafone Idea CEO Balesh Sharma today said the company had managed to increase the speeds of its 4G networks by 50-70% in around half of its circles where it has merged Idea and Vodafone networks together.
However, said Sharma, the market is yet to fully appreciate the improvement in speeds because of the experience that some customers had on the company’s 4G service prior to the merger.
“Download speeds have improved anywhere between 50% to 70% in the integrated circles,” Sharma said today. “However, there is a clear time lag between first integrating the network and then being able to stabilize the network and getting to the shape that we desire.
“Post that, there’s a clear gap between the network performance vs the perceptions that customers carry due to the relatively poorer performance in the previous quarters, and there’s a widespread customer perception.”
The company has been joining the two networks together to create massive 4G infrastructure that overshadows those of rivals like Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio (see graphic).
However, before this, the company suffered from poor network capacity — and poor speeds — due to lack of ‘capacity spectrum’, also known as TDD spectrum.
Unlike Airtel and Reliance Jio, neither Vodafone nor Idea was using high capacity spectrum in any substantial way on their 4G networks prior to the merger. This was because of two reasons: First, they got hold of TDD spectrum only in 2016, and just as they were firming up plans to put them to use, the merger was announced — putting most of such plans on hold.
Secondly, like BSNL, the companies hold TDD spectrum in Band 41, which used to be supported by only a handful devices such as the iPhone till last year.
In contrast, Band 40 TDD spectrum — used by Jio and Airtel — has been in use in India since 2010 and is supported by almost all handsets.
However, over the last 18 months or so, Band 41 has been extended to nearly all models selling in the market.
As a result, Vodafone Idea started deploying TDD spectrum in the earnest only in September last year.
Sharma said such spectrum is being deployed in congestion-prone areas, along with a new technology called Massive MIMO — a kind of antenna-oriented technology that can increase cell capacity by 5-10 times.
While Jio and Bharti Airtel have been talking about Massive MIMO, Vodafone Idea seem to have put quite a bit of distance between itself and its rivals as far as the actual use of this technology is concerned.
Vodafone Idea said it added a whopping 4,400 Massive MIMO transmitters during the quarter, taking the total such installations to 6,700.
This, said Sharma, “is the second largest deployment in the world, and makes us the only telco that is using any serious level of deployment of this technology in India.”
“In our higher priority districts and hotspots, with massive MIMO deployments, our end-customer experience will stand out,” he added.
It has also added 8,600 ‘small cells’, which are a bit like high-power Wifi hotspots and are intended to serve a small area — usually just a building or a hall.
Another big boost for the company’s 4G network is coming in the form of more and more spectrum freed up from the erstwhile Idea and Vodafone networks.
Now that the combined company has two sets of 2G, 3G and 4G networks, it is shutting down one set of 2G and 3G networks in many of its service areas, and diverting the freed spectrum to feed its speed-hungry 4G customers.
It said it freed up 18 MHz of 2G spectrum in 4 circles, or an average of 4.5 MHz per circle, in the 1800 MHz band that was being used for delivering 2G services.
Similarly, it has freed up 70 MHz of 3G spectrum and diverted it to its 4G network. More 3G spectrum will be refarmed for 4G as integration progresses, it added.
Currently, about 69% of its districts — accounting for about half its revenue — have seen full network integration between Idea and Vodafone services.
Still on the topic of spectrum reallocation, the company said it has allocated 70 MHz of 2G spectrum in the high-penetration 900 MHz to 4G as well. It has a total of about 129 MHz of spectrum in this band that can potentially be diverted to 4G.
However, instead of permanently diverting this spectrum to 4G, the company uses a new technology which allows it to use a part of the spectrum for 2G and the remaining for 4G, and keep changing the amounts depending on the traffic.
Sharma said the move to utilize 900 MHz spectrum has improved 4G coverage inside buildings, even in big cities where penetration inside thick buildings can be a challenge.
To overcome the company’s ‘image problem’ caused by a delay in network expansion — in turn caused by a less-than-prompt merger approval by the DoT — the company is now carrying out focused marketing campaigns.
“We are now running several hyperlocal promotional campaigns targeting specific cities and districts to advertise our network speeds and experience and improve customer awareness about network improvements,” Balesh Sharma said.
Boosted by higher speeds, the company saw strong growth in data consumption on its network during the Apr-Jun quarter.
During the three months, an average Vodafone Idea wireless broadband user consumed 9,657 MB per month, up from 8,815 MB per month during Jan-Mar. This is the fastest growth in per-capita data consumption for the company in the last four quarters.