Jio’s 5G rollout strategy risky and challenging, says Speedtest-maker Ookla


Jio’s going the Open RAN route and building its own infrastructure. (Photo credit: Reuters)

Ookla is mostly known for Speedtest and more recently also for Downdetector, the online platform for monitoring service issues and outages—like the one that Facebook and its entire suit of products including WhatsApp and Instagram witnessed last night. The utility of Speedtest—or Speedtest.net—cannot be stressed enough. The numbers speak for themselves. Just last year, nearly 600 million unique users accessed the web service to test their internet quality, you know, metrics like connection data rate and latency.

Co-founder and CEO Doug Suttles goes so far as to call it the “pulse of connectivity around the internet.”

Back when Ookla was just starting—this was in 2006—the fastest internet connections that Suttles and Co. would see was around 10 Megabit. It was a very different time in terms of what Speedtest had to measure. Bottlenecks you’d encounter were a lot less. Servers weren’t high capacity. So, “it was easier to accomplish what we needed with less, without as much special sauce,” he says.

Fast forward to 2021 and there are places having 10 Gigabit fibre. “We have to measure that effectively while also measuring old satellite technology and you can’t just use the same logic for both. It just won’t work,” he adds.

Speedtest has a “very complex” methodology designed to assess quickly what it thinks the connection is so that just the right amount of data is sent out in just the right number of parallel streams for the test to be as accurate as possible. That methodology, expectedly, has evolved a lot over the years. Needless to say, Ookla has had to ramp up its server network too in tandem.

“We are fast approaching about 15,000 unique testing nodes around the internet purpose built for Speedtest. Most of these are multigigabit servers and each one is in a unique data centre dispersed in every country around the world.”

The India internet story

India has been one of the most interesting markets to watch for Ookla especially after the entry of Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Jio in 2016. Jio did something the world had never seen before. It built a massive modern mobile network and then gave it away for free for a period of time.

“There’s nothing more disrupting than that,” Suttles says.

But because you only have so much capacity, and if you’re giving it away for free, “you’re going to really stress test that thing, and so bottlenecks in core network and spectrum,” would eventually follow.

Ookla was closely watching Jio’s network long before so many people got on it and it was pretty amazing. It was obvious, this was going to be a big deal in India. But once it got everyone using it, in no time, the network started showing signs of wear.

“It’s challenging to build a network to support such a huge population density.” Jio would then go on to underperform compared to everyone else “for a while.”

Until recently, when things have started to pick up. The recent spectrum rollout that Jio has done is “absolute proof” that most of its issues were spectrum related. You need to draw more bands of spectrum, have more capacity in more places to see better performance, better speeds, and Jio, over the past few months has “more than doubled its performance because of the spectrum bands that they rolled out in March.”

Jio’s now neck and neck with Vodafone Idea and Airtel’s right up there and they’re all close in terms of performance. As per Ookla, Vodafone Idea was the best performer for much of 2020 but Jio has jumped past them in the last couple of months. They had almost the exact same performance in August.

But the results overall—from an industry point of view—are far from ideal. Although average speeds are increasing, they’re nowhere close to most markets around the world where speed jumps have been stellar with the addition of carrier aggregation and more recently with rollout of 5G technologies—something that’s not happening in India.

Telcos here are also marred by difficulty in getting fibre everywhere for the backhaul and congestion in many areas aside from spectrum availability.

5G in India

We all have been promised that 5G will bring hundreds of Megabits—even Gigabits—at low latency. The low latency side is important—for Ookla—because “we want to see pings that are sub 10 milliseconds and that’s not there yet even in the US.”

You really need a standalone network that’s properly structured using all types of low-band, mid-band and high-band to realise the full potential of 5G.

In the US—which is almost half way there as per Suttles—T-Mobile perhaps offers the widest coverage with mid- and low-band spectrums. Verizon has the largest roll-out of high-band—millimetre wave—where users can get near-Gigabit throughput at certain select locations. That’s great for certain spots, but mid-band is where it’s going to be at for large scale deployment, something that will give you a few 100 Megabits of throughput, maybe 20-30 milliseconds of latency in the near term.

“We’ll see a lot of that in the coming year,” he says, adding “but that standalone 5G promise of competing with fibre and whatnot, I think is still a few years away—even in the US.”

India may be following behind other countries, but Suttles believes that’s not necessarily a disadvantage because improving upon what’s there already is important right now.

“There’s an advantage to letting a bunch of other countries try different things and learning from that and then doing it the right way the first time,” he says. “Your delay in getting 5G may benefit you with the spur of 5G devices.”

If spectrum is done right and then when you pair that with access to affordable 5G smartphones which did not exist in the last couple of years, those are the advantages that’ll really help boost adoption.

Jio’s going the Open RAN route and building its own infrastructure—equipment if you will—as it gears for 5G. Suttles says it makes sense as to why it would be an advantage over time, but it “surely is risky and challenging to create such a network that hasn’t really been done in many places before.”

On the flip side, if you’re able to build something where you are equipment and vendor agnostic, you’re not stuck with a certain system. So, from that standpoint, you can tell it would be less expensive and then you can try and set it all up and manage the whole network through software. This is a unique model.

“We do see the whole wireless world going that way in the future so this is just them trying to push the cutting-edge tech early to manage the network through software and the cloud, hopefully have full automation. It should be far less expensive overtime, but it’s also challenging to get something like that in the market,” he says.

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