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17 May 2022

Lightstorm brings an open model to longhaul transport 

So much of the conversation about open network centers on the RAN that it is easy to forget the equally innovative attempts that are being made, often led by start-ups, to open up the transport network. Indeed, a recent survey of almost 80 operators by Rethink Technology Research revealed that 35% believed an open network strategy would only deliver the full commercial benefits targeted, if it were planned from end to end; while a further 27% said an end to end approach would be “highly beneficial”.  


Complexity arises in the transport domain because it has so many elements, from RAN xHaul to metro and core switching and routing, to subsea cables. Many operators will use third party infrastructure in at least some of these domains, with a rising dependence on hyperscalers. 


But the example of Lightstorm Telecom shows that even this entrenched and complex market is ripe for architectural and value chain disruption. Lightstorm recently announced a deal, picked up by TelecomTV, to land the Trans-Europe Asia System (TEAS), a wholesale terrestrial and submarine network that will link India, the Middle East and Europe via multiple routes. News of this agreement threw a spotlight on Lightstorm’s innovative model, which involves building a fiber transport network across India using power grid infrastructure, and taking an open approach to wide area transport including the landing of subsea cables. 


It aims to expand its model into other Asian markets, initially Indonesia, and also to expand in terms of target customers, with network-as-a-service propositions for telcos and cloud or data center operators, but also for enterprises. 


Lightstorm’s first priority is to build its Indian nationwide network, which will be based on emerging software-defined optical transport technologies. Given the importance of subsea cables to connect many Asian countries – and the recent wave of build-outs of new cables –  it is also focusing on how its transport network (and those of third parties) can connect more easily to global systems. 


This is highlighted in the TEAS contract, which will see Lightstorm using its “carrier neutral and open cable landing station” to connect the subsea cable – being built by Cinturion – to the national terrestrial networks. This will transform the economics of international connectivity for India, Lightstorm’s CEO Amajit Gupta told TelecomTV. 


Currently, he explained, the Internet market in India, Indonesia, Thailand and some other Asian countries is “blocked” because the cable landing stations (CLS) are owned by telcos that charge very large fees for access – fees that enterprises or alternative service providers, in particular, often find commercially non-viable. 


“We’re aiming to get parity with the advanced western markets with a cable landing station that stands on its own operating costs and doesn’t build in any inefficiencies or lock-ins with respect to backhaul, rights of access charges and so on,” Gupta said. 


Over the coming year, the company aims to announce open CLS projects in several Indian cities, including Mumbai and Chennai, and then to expand to other markets. It is forging partnerships with major subsea stakeholders, both in the cables themselves and in content and services, “to remove these inefficiencies and hopefully make some money at the same time”. One partnership is with international interconnection platform operator DE-CIX. 


Competitive transport network operators will be able to use the Lightstorm CLS, but much of the business model relies on a large number of ISPs and enterprises choosing to connect to the subsea cables via Lightstorm’s own Indian optical network, called SmartNet.  


It has been constructing this network since early 2020, backed by $300m in investment from I Squared Capital, which gives it almost 100% ownership. The investment house, which focuses on large-scale infrastructure projects, also owns 75% of the Indonesian operation.  


The Indian network consists of 15,000 kilometers of fiber linking major economic centers. It supports a growing number of multi-tenant data centers, with 75 targeted for the end of this year. The fiber runs overground along the Indian power grid infrastructure, which saves cost by using existing routes and by avoiding extensive digging. The infrastructure vendor is Ciena, while Nokia is providing OSS and Oracle the BSS. The operations and control software is based inside the power utilities’ own data centers, which are well-suited to a telecoms network because they are highly distributed and have very high levels of availability. 


Next, Lightstorm aims to replicate its efforts in Indonesia, another market that is underserved by highly reliable, long distance transport infrastructure. The financial pressures on service providers and enterprises in Indonesia also make it important to lower barriers to accessing these transport networks, reducing the cost and the need for complex negotiated partnerships with telcos. 


The first open, carrier-neutral CLS will be constructed in capital Jakarta, but Lightstorm’s regional ambitions do not end there. Gupta said in the interview: “Our aspiration is to build connectivity right through south east Asia… Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar, Philippines, Vietnam”. He added: “The next billion Internet consumers are from this region and it has been crying out for some good quality differentiated connectivity to link data centers and economic hubs. 


Lightstorm, like many greenfield infrastructure builders, has two challenges which it has to address in parallel. One is to expand its geographical footprint sufficiently rapidly to achieve economies of scale and pre-empt challengers, but without over-reaching its resources or revenue potential. The other is to continue to evolve its modern, cloud-based architecture to maximize flexibility and cost-efficiency. The next major technical initiative is to build a stack to support enterprise wholesale services, to increase the monetization potential of SmartNet and the CLS. Gupta says enterprise network-as-a-service offerings are starting to grow quickly in North America and parts of Asia, and so the timing is right to steal an early march in south east Asia.