01 Apr

India’s digital slum problem

India has a slum problem as many of us know. Slums are a serious problem and there’s just no easy way to fix them. One cannot just push thousands and thousands of people out while at the same time quality of life in slums is terrible. One thing which happens a lot in India is the fact that Govt. does nothing when slums are getting established and once they are established situation gets out of control.



Coming to digital slums

This exact problem is applicable even to digital India. Optical fibre is one of the key and extremely important components of the “Digital India”. While Digital India may sound more like a fancy marketing word but one cannot simply expect much unless connectivity is there and with connectivity I mean affordable, reliable, super-fast connectivity with low latency. Most of the wireless technologies cannot deliver it or simply cannot scale up. So we need more and more fibre. Just like everywhere else we need to push fibre closer to the end user. Our approach in that design needs to be far different from Western world especially US, UK, etc. They lag behind considerably in last mile fibre deployment and the conditions are far different in deployments over there Vs of India.

Say for instance:

  1. Fixed line infra using twisted copper & coax is well built and is present in most parts of the Western world. In India, it’s almost missing.
  2. The cost of replacing existing infra is high in the Western world due to the expectation of certain quality, compliance etc and that makes it extremely expensive in terms of per user cost of delivering FTTH. I have read a number of estimates where it can cost $2000 – $3000 per household in an urban FTTH deployment.Even if it’s half of this it’s still on the quite higher side. In India, it’s a fraction of the cost.
  3. “Fibre to the node and something else beyond” can give high bandwidth. It may not be able to give 1Gbps but can easily do 50-100Mbps. Technologies like VDSL, DOCSIS 3.0 (and upcoming 3.1), use of cat5e / cat6 wiring inside buildings can give high bandwidth for a fraction of the cost. In India, that’s not an option (at large scale) due to a number of issues ranging from location/real estate cost of mini-PoP, cooling requirements, reliable & backup power requirements & ensuring no one steals the stuff! All that makes FTT(n) harder than FTTH in India. 


So is the picture so rosy and everything is fantastic? Can we expect lot’s of FTTH deployment now and for a really low price? Before I come to that, let me post some of the pictures I took recently of Salte Lake Electronic Complex, Kolkata.


It’s ugly, unscalable, will soon have reliability issues and of course it’s extremely likely illegal. It’s not just about Kolkata. Pick any of commercial areas in any of large Indian city and it would be similar. These are what we can call as “Digital slums”. Govt. isn’t focusing on them, they are coming up, getting established, serving gigs of capacity to various high revenue generating companies around. Same is true not just for India but most of developing countries around us.


Some pictures from streets in Dhaka


Some pictures from Kathmandu


and some pictures from last month’s travel to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam:


Here’s a quick video showing it feels like over there…


That’s about Vietnam. Things would be scary if we try to replicate such model in a country like India. Thus one can clearly establish that this is going be a major problem and needs to be addressed.  At this point of time, one may ask why fibre gets deployed in this way? I asked this to a number of Indian networks and here is the summary of why:

  1. Rights of way are deadly expensive. Rights of way or RoW is referred to the charge network operators need to pay to local municipal bodies because of interruption when the fibre is deployed. Cost depends on a lot on the area but in key areas in Delhi, it can be as high as 80lakhs – 1crore per KM ($1.54k). Remember we are not talking about the cost of fibre (which is very low) or even hardware, or anything. This is a one-off cost that goes to municipal bodies. In my own city, I have 3 telco pits within 400m of my house and one of the telcos gave me an unofficial quote of 15lakhs ($23000!) for extending their fibre 400m.
  2. Because of above there’s a huge market of so-called LCOs (Local Cable Operators) and they lay the fibre. LCOs have (mostly) unofficial contracts with other LCOs and a considerable amount of last mile infra is not of any telco or ISP, it’s indeed of LCOs.
  3. The above model does not scale up since multiple LCOs put multiple fibre cables & a large part of it is illegal, undocumented and hence not worth much money on paper resulting in “hard to prove asset” for any private funding for expansion.

Illegal but ethical?

While a lot of that is purely illegal I cannot say it should not be allowed at all and Govt. should remove all of them right away. I know many smaller ISPs operating in tier 2, tier 3 cities and they provide excellent service, great competition and very good network built on fibre and mostly with GPON / GEPON etc. Almost all of them offer an excellent competition to state-run BSNL which is poor in most of the aspects of service deployment to technology, from sales to customer support. In other words, we very much need smaller private players to lay networks and they can do really well. Which makes the whole problem similar to “slums” and hence we can call it “India’s Digital Slum” problem. We can’t just get rid of them while we ignored and still very much ignoring the problem as it’s building up.


Possible solution?

So what can be a solution to this problem? Cheap RoW is not a solution. Already Indian cities struggle very much with basic infrastructure and cheap RoW will result in excessive digging, more broken roads, and more outages in utility services. While there has been a lot of innovation in the application layer, layer 3 as well as even transport layer there’s not much in the optical fibre. What I am trying to point out essentially is that fibre optic cables are more of a commodity now and single mode cables are cheap. The overall technology whether one does active ethernet or passive PON – the cost of technology is very low. A design of 100% underground cables is needed and will be ideal setup with the flexibility of adding more networks. If the optical fibre is laid by one or few players it can lead to the dangerous non-competition condition. While Govt’s efforts to do FTTH via BSNL & MTNL are nothing but a terrible waste of taxpayers money in the inefficiencies of those organisations. While interestingly other Govt. players who are doing fibre on long haul are doing much better. Take the case of RailTel or Powergrid Telecom. Both very much compete with their private counterparts for IP transit as well as high capacity circuits on long haul  (we refer those as NLD in India).

Here’s a possible solution for last mile deployment without ugly cables & which can work:

  1. A cabinet on each and every street in the city rolled out in phased manner across the country. One can have a single cabinet at inter- section. (This already exists at large scale for BSNL’s & MTNL’s copper infra btw!)
  2. Cabinet has to be active (with power!) so that one can put a switch or GPON OLT. Logic has to be to the aggregate traffic of all homes in the neighbourhood.
  3. It should be Govt. which lays cables from each of this street cabinet to atleast one of 4-5 neutral exchanges across a city (whichever is nearby). Number of exchanges very much depend on the size of the city. So, for instance, Delhi or Kolkata would need lot more. As long as there is 288 strand fibre available from core exchange area to the street, one can have as many as 100 ISPs + (each taking two strands up to cabinet). Now ISPs can decide which last mile technology to use. One can do with lower strand depending on the city. Even a 48 core can give over 20 ISPs per area which is fair amount of competition. Ideal would be to connect each cabinet to two exchanges so ISPs can create their own “rings” for redundancy reasons.
  4. From cabinets to each home ideal would be to have underground fibre laid by Govt. but doing that will be terribly expensive. It makes lot more sense to have overhead (well planned) cables from cabinet to each home. This won’t look as ugly as one may think and reduces cost significantly. Overhead at such shorter scale gives the option of “connecting home as demand comes”. While entire underground approach has to cover all and that doesn’t work well in terms of very low internet penetration.
  5. Connectivity beyond the central exchanges can be very well done with 100% underground fibre with existing expensive RoW since fibre beyond this point will be of telcos and by logical design would be used by lot’s of players with DWDM and cost won’t be a challenge. It’s similar to existing significant underground fibre reaching BTS sites across the country.


So under such design one can have a number of larger networks building their own fibre or simply buying waves from existing fibre players to reach exchanges in the city, a number of smaller ISPs can colocate their routers in neutral exchanges and take 2 strands of fibre to any of the streets via cross connect. And put a switch or OLT or any other technology which comes later or even a direct patch all the way from one central exchange in the city to end user. I cannot imagine any other solution which can possibly work without either making it more expensive or existing illegal way. Such model can have very least dependency on Govt. as the Govt can do basic pipes and neutral passive infra while leaving service deployment, plans & packages, marketing and various other aspects of a connection to private players. Such infra can very well be used for small cell sites which can service that neighbourhood and hence makes it possible to reduce strain on larger sites. Models like Stokab project followed in Stockholm is impressive. It tells how it can be done by Govt. / Municipal without burning tax payer’s money and in fact generate revenue out of it. Current Indian approach of overhead cables works and is fine for a shorter time but will be a massive “digital slum problem” in near future as more and more people are connected.

24 Mar

Internet Exchanges – Place where the networks interconnect!

Earlier this month I got an opportunity to be part of IXP workshop in Kolkata. It was a 3-day event organised by ISOC Kolkata and supported by APNIC. There was also a workshop on DNSSEC and Champika Wijayatunga (from ICANN) was the instructor along with Anand Raje. It was a nice event and I come to know of other interesting projects ISOC Kolkata is doing like Indian IETF capacity building program apart from the IXP they are running in Kolkata. Mr Anupam Aggarwal and Anand showed the IX and it looks very good. I think it’s the first and only IX I know in India which is a real IX with proper policy. It’s an IX by a non-for-profit group, allows anyone to connect, a real layer 2 IX and welcomes anyone including ISPs, content players and root DNS servers. Presently IIFON-IX in Kolkata has few member ISPs besides the L root from ICANN and one of Verisign gTLD nodes (which host zones for .com, .net etc). I also saw a rack with some of Akamai CDN servers. This brings decent content right there. IX’es play an extremely important part of current internet infrastructure ecosystem. It’s very likely that content of this blog is travelling from my server to your browser from an Internet Exchange. 🙂


IIFON-IX Kolkata



I hope IIFON-IX does well in terms of becoming a key point for internet traffic exchange in Kolkata. There are a number of benefits of a good IX. Some of them are:

  1. Helps in reducing overall cost of bandwidth by keeping it local
  2. Helps in giving ultra-low latency interconnections among members
  3. Builds resilience across the internet by removing the dependency on transit players for local traffic and a lot more!


Besides IIFON-IX, I have been to BDIX in Dhaka, HKIX in Hong Kong, INEX IX in Dublin, LoNAP in London, Netnod in Stockholm etc. One thing common across all these exchanges is local involvement, usually a non-for-profit model and a collective community effort to make internet infrastructure better.


INEX – Dublin



Nick Hilliard (CTO at INEX) was kind enough to give me ride to one DCs hosting the IX.

Here’s a pic with Nick:


It was very interesting to see the use of passive DWDM MUX in the IX to connect between INEX PoPs across Dublin.


The one in this picture is an MRV MUX. Each port in passive MUX has it’s own wavelength and requires either pre-tuned or tunable SFP for that specific port. Such MUX can help to increase capacity on a pair of the strand by offering 40 channels and each can carry up to 10Gbps thus a capacity of 400Gbps for shorter distances (20kms or so).

The channels numbers mentioned on the port correspond to ITU Channel table and here’s the frequency wise table of actual channel number:


LoNAP – London


During my trip to UK, my good friend Andy Davidson helped in arranging a tour of LoNAP and Robert Lister was kind enough to give me a nice detailed tour of the IX fabric.



It was nice to see 10Gig flavours of Bidi SFPs i.e SFPs which do 10Gbps on a single strand of fibre. These are slightly different in terms of wavelengths as they run on 1270/1330 pair (opposite on the other side) while 1G Bidi optics runs on 1310/1490 pair.


I also saw a QSFP-LR4 which can do 100Gbps up to 10kms on a pair of fibre. 100Gbps or 100,000,000,000 bits per second or 100,000,000,000 zeros and ones flowing from fibre every second!


This runs on 1310mn and I don’t think there’s any Bi-Di option yet for 100G. There was ongoing 100G deployment at LoNAP during last year summers when I visited. One can spot an Arista switch with 100G ports.


And here’s a picture with amazing Rob after the IX-tour ended. 🙂


BDIX – Dhaka

Some pictures from Bangladesh Internet Exchange in Dhaka.

Mr Kabir from BDIX gave me an excellent tour of BDIX during my visit to Bangladesh back in 2015. You can see a lot of 1G fibre media converters in the rack. There’s quite a lot of fibre in Dhaka and cost of media converter is low and hence using them instead of the optical switch makes commercial sense though that’s changing fast. IX runs it its own dedicated building floor. IX has over 78 members.

Here’s a picture with Mr Kabir 🙂


Where should IX fabric be located?  

This is one of key question which comes in the mind of many engineers when talking of IX. Should IX be in a separate dedicated building or it should be rather in a commercial datacenter? The answer is simply that it depends. In larger cities in US or Europe, there are quite a lot of datacenters which are well connected. There’s reasonable competitive fibre available for potential members to reach switch fabric. While in the case of developing world here in Asia there might not be good commercial datacenter and hence one may end up in starting IX in a dedicated building. Also in developing world, there’s a considerable aerial fibre (legal as well illegal) and it’s usually easy for members to reach by pulling fibre or using someone else’s existing fibre. So, for example, IX’es like LoNAP, INEX, LINX, AMS-IX etc all run in well connected commercial datacenters. One can find the list of those datacenters by looking at peeringdb. While IX’es in South Asia like BDIX in Dhaka or NPIX in Nepal run out of their own buildings. Both approaches depend on lot more on existing fibre availability as well as rights of way charges. In the case of India, it’s a rather mix. IIFON-IX is new and runs out of a connected building in Kolkata in Sector 5, Kolkata while NIXI runs out of some good commercial datacenters in some cases and very poor datacenters in some other cases.


What’s wrong in India IX scenario? 

Well Indian IX scenario is a big mess. NIXI or National Internet Exchange of India is presently helping in exchange of 60Gbps traffic across NIXI Mumbai, Chennai, Noida, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad. There has been a jump in NIXI’s traffic in tier 1 Indian cities due to high traffic by Reliance Jio which happens to be exchanging traffic with Airtel via NIXI. But still 60Gbps is just nothing based on Indian scale in terms of a number of end users, amount of time Indians spend on internet etc. Except for NIXI Noida, Mumbai & Chennai, none is even crossing 200Mbps mark. NIXI’s IX in IT hub Bangalore is exchanging less than 1Mbps of traffic which is shameful (MRTG graph here). Same is true for Hyderabad and Ahmedabad.

Following things are wrong w.r.t NIXI and need to be fixed asap:

  1. The policy which allows only Indian ISP license holders to connect to IX (content players are not allowed!)
  2. The policy which does a ridiculous x-y on net inbound traffic and charges at a price of 1 INR /GB (which used to be 50 INR/GB in start)
  3. A misunderstanding that there’s  a mentality to keep above rules in order to keep large telcos. One can just let both: these stupid rules as well as large telcos to drop if they like to while having a large amount of smaller members over circuits of telcos
  4. Better choice of datacenters instead of sticking with not to well-connected datacenters


And of course, we need more efforts like IIFON and other players.

Remember: Somewhere up the transit path, there’s always peering! 🙂 

Disclaimer: This is my personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer.