This startup uses abandoned gas pipelines from the 19th century to facilitate telecom traffic via Network as a Service


  • CloudExtel took over, excavated and cleaned old gas pipelines and installed more than 200 kilometers of fiber optics in South Bombay.
  • The pipeline-turned-telecom assets gave way to their dark fiber leasing business, but the co-founder wants to turn it into a full-stack NaaS business.
  • “We are able to build out our network infrastructure and offer it to our customers on a service basis,” Bajaj told India.

CloudExtel was founded in 2014, but the story started much earlier – then The Gilded Age was set in British-administered Bombay and before electricity was in use. A company called Bombay Gas used to supply piped gas to buildings in Bombay and even power street lights. The company stopped gas distribution in the mid-1980s and the pipelines have been unused ever since.

That was until 2014 – then Kunal Bajaja telecom industry veteran and former partner India director of consulting firm Analysys Mason, was introduced to the founders of Bombay Gas – the Hamilton and Business Group. The company, which had since diversified into real estate, among other things, wanted to convert the company’s gas pipelines into telecom assets.

When CloudExtel was formed, it took over the old gas pipelines, excavated and cleaned them up and installed more than 200 kilometers of fiber in South Bombay. Because the fiberglass is laid under footpaths and bridges in cast iron pipelines, it provides an extra layer of security.

The pipeline-turned-telecom assets gave way to the company’s dark fiber leasing business, where the service provider provides the fiber infrastructure, but the customer manages it. Some of his clients are Airtel, PGCILRailtel, Sify, Tata Communications and Vodafone Idea.

Having seen the market move from the bare minimum network speeds of the 2G era to the blazing speeds of 3G and 4G, Bajaj had bigger plans than just geographic expansion for the company. He wanted to build a network-as-a-service operation – a model where customers rent network infrastructure and services through a cloud-like subscription model.

“So I came to them with the idea that instead of just thinking about building out a fiber company, we should actually think about building out a full Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) full-stack operation,” Bajaj, who is also the co-founder of CloudExtel, told India.

Unblock networks

While India needs underground fiber – which is difficult to lay and maintain amid the many roadblocks faced by telcos, the industry itself faces a myriad of challenges when it comes to delivering high-speed data services to an increasingly demanding customer base .

India’s large population and high density in most urban and even semi-urban areas have created network challenges telcos and ISPs. And this is the problem CloudExtel wants to solve.

“There is the traditional way of serving these (busy) areas with the macro sites and big towers. But at some point those macro sites get completely clogged and the capacity limits are reached and telcos have to be able to provide extra capacity in that densely populated area. You then have to go from the top of a tall building with a large area and you need a miniaturized location, which is at a lower elevation, closer to where the actual traffic consumption is,” explained Bajaj.

In addition to laying more than 4,000 kilometers of fiber in cities, CloudExtel added 4,000 small mobile sites in 325 cities and towns. In addition, it offers services such as virtual networks that take over from delivering infrastructure-as-a-service to NaaS.

It uses fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) with end-to-end services on a single platform that build, plan and maintain networks for telcos and internet service providers targeting homes and SMBs.

“So we’re taking some of the hardest parts of that telecom network and building it out on behalf of the telcos, ISPs and content providers. We focus on very difficult types of problems, where high network capacity is required or where it is very difficult to get fiber in the ground or buildings and homes. We are able to build out our network infrastructures and offer them to our customers on a service basis,” said Bajaj.

CloudExtel believes there will come a time when telecom companies will outsource most or all of their infrastructure needs, paving the way for network-as-a-service or NaaS companies like themselves. Global players such as Cisco and IBM are also players in the NaaS space.

“We deliver a fully virtualized network to our customers. We can compare it to Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud, which took over from companies that build, own and maintain their own data centers. I’m not saying that the telecom network or the telecom industry is ready to be fully virtualized or share all these stations and microsites, but this is the first step in that process, in that direction,” Bajaj said.

A new era beckons

CloudExtel has so far been launched and internally funded off balance sheet. Even with the substantial set of assets, it still calls itself a startup. “So I still consider ourselves a startup because we haven’t reached a tenth of what we think we can achieve,” Bajaj said.

Even as India is on the verge of launching 5G networks, Bajaj believes that the definition of network speeds is evolving, with more and more new technologies emerging. And infrastructure companies like CloudExtel will need to stay ahead of the innovation cycle.

“We are launching 5G today, but work on 5G actually started 10 years ago. Those are kind of timelines on which these kinds of industries really work. 5G is largely about the ability to deploy small cells and provide dense network capacity and good network signals in highly congested or highly congested areas. That can basically be done on the back of just small cells that are placed very close to the end customers, right at traffic hubs and high-density locations,” Bajaj said.

Even as technology evolves, the number of high-bandwidth applications such as connected TVs, AR and VR based stores, in addition to metaverse, etc. are multiplying at a rate faster than the time it takes to build the infrastructure that necessary to deal with it.

“I think the biggest challenge we face is that we don’t have fixed line infrastructure prominently available in the country. So, with increasing capacity requirements and throughput requirements, telcos will always find it difficult to keep up with what the industry demands. That was actually the origin of the idea eight years ago,” says Bajaj.

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