At telecom operator Bharti Airtel’s Bengaluru lab, a team of 50-60 engineers are hard at work. Even as India dithers on an auction for 5G spectrum, delaying the next generation of mobile networks in the country, this team is working to give Bharti a leg up when 5G inevitably becomes a reality in the country.
The goal of the project—which has even enlisted the help of engineers from partners such as US-based telecom vendor Altiostar—is to design and build a radio unit (RU). A critical network component—not to mention, the most expensive—the RU is what powers the antennas that beam 5G signals out. Bharti’s plan is to build its 5G network using open-source telecom architecture—or Open RAN Open RAN Open Radio Access Network It's an alternate way of building network with greater interoperability and competition —which allows it to mix and match software and hardware solutions.
On the face of it, Bharti is following in the footsteps of its arch rival Reliance Jio, which claims to be building an end-to-end 5G technology stack. The preceding few months have even seen a series of articles in leading business dailies claiming Bharti is creating intellectual property in areas such as 5G and Internet of Things, among others.
Like Jio, these reports indicate that Bharti, too, wants to sell its 5G stack to other markets. A closer look at the methods of the two operators, however, reveals two diametrically opposed approaches.
Bharti is looking to take advantage of disaggregation and open-source technology for the next generation of radio access networks. This, typically, accounts for over 70% of a telco’s capital expenditure. Before 5G, traditional vendors such as Nokia and Ericsson supplied proprietary equipment, meaning telcos were dependent on them for the software and hardware for radio access networks. This stacked the deck in favour of equipment vendors, driving up costs for telcos.
Bharti intends to assemble the network’s various components from different vendors, using a systems integrator to stitch all of these pieces together into a high-quality white-label product. Not only will Bharti save on capital expenditure in its 5G rollout, says a senior executive with the operator, but it will also be able to pass these savings on to customers.
To manage this, Bharti is busy building its 5G army. At its Bengaluru 5G lab, which was set up in 2018, Bharti is still hiring engineers. The operator has also been poaching executives from Samsung’s R&D unit and Reliance Jio, multiple executives who work closely with Bharti told The Ken. Unlike rival Reliance Jio, though, Bharti is not hiring software coders because it doesn’t intend to develop products in-house.