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Views of Shashi Ranjan Kumar, Joint Secretary, DoT

July 28, 2017

Views of Shashi Ranjan Kumar, Joint Secr...


For several years, securing right of way (RoW) has been the biggest hurdle in the expansion of telecom infrastructure in India. The protracted application process has made it difficult for telecom service providers to obtain RoW while exorbitant administrative charges have discouraged them from undertaking significant network roll-outs. Meanwhile, the absence of a standard administrative cost structure has resulted in significantly high costs for obtaining RoW. In order to resolve these issues, the government notified the new Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules in November 2016. At a recent tele.net conference, “OFC Networks in India”, Shashi Ranjan Kumar, joint secretary, Department of Telecommunications, discussed the key provisions of the new RoW rules as well as the progress made under the government’s BharatNet project. Excerpts...

The RoW rules released in November 2016 lay down a clear framework for the expeditious grant of approvals, in a transparent and uniform manner, with regard to the deployment of both over-the-ground and underground infrastructure. The rules are applicable for only land owned by government bodies, such as central and state departments and municipal corporations, and not for land owned by private entities. For private lands, the RoW rules notified by different state governments are applicable.

A key challenge faced by infrastructure players until now has been that each agency follows its own set of procedures for grant of RoW permissions. The RoW rules seek to address this issue by bringing uniformity and homogeneity in the approach. The rules prescribe standard procedures for the grant of RoW approvals and specify the list of documents that need to be submitted for obtaining permissions such as the licence granted by the central government, the details of the underground infrastructure being laid by them, and the time and duration of the work.

The concerned authority needs to examine the applications based on the parameters defined under the rules, such as the mode of execution, duration of the project, estimated expenses, and responsibility for damage and public safety in the area being considered, and then take a decision within 60 days. Further, as per the new rules, no application can be rejected unless the applicant has been given a chance to explain its position. The rules also specify that no application must be rejected without giving the applicant the reasons for the rejection in writing and an opportunity to be heard. If the application is neither accepted nor rejected within 60 days, it would be deemed as approved and the same communicated to the applicant in writing within five working days. This has been done to ensure that applicants do not have to wait too long for RoW permissions and an expeditious decision is taken either way.

There is a provision for appeal in the system against the denial of approvals. All state governments and union territories have designated a nodal officer for solving disputes between the body that grants the RoW permission and the applicant. The new rules have also made the process of removal of telecom infrastructure more fair and transparent. Normally, if a company has laid optic fibre cable (OFC) under land owned by a municipal corporation and if the authority requires that land for some other purpose, the telecom company will receive a notice to remove the OFC as quickly as possible. However, under the new rules, when the appropriate authority considers it necessary to remove some telecom infrastructure, it will issue a notice to the telecom company. The telecom company is required to submit a detailed plan for removal or alteration of such infrastructure to the appropriate authority within a period of 30 days of the notice. The concerned authority will grant 90 days to the telecom company to remove or alter its telecom infrastructure. The responsibility and liability, including the cost for removal or alteration of such infrastructure, will be borne by the telecom company.

All the state governments and the union territories were involved in the process of framing these rules. One of the key challenges that we have not been able to address is the prescription of charges for grant of RoW. There were two views on this. One view was to prescribe benchmark charges for grant of RoW approvals by authorities. The other view was that since in the past few years many municipal corporations have generated a lot of revenue from the grant of RoW permissions and since they are independent legal entities, it would not be feasible to prescribe charges. Even if we had specified charges, it was highly unlikely that they would be enforced. Therefore, we have tried to strike a pragmatic balance between the needs of the telecom companies and the municipal authorities. These authorities should, in their own interest, lower the rates to a level that would evince interest from telecom companies, and this would actually increase their revenues ultimately.

Hence, in the first phase, what we are attempting to do is to streamline the process for grant of RoW by making it more simple, transparent and time-bound. We will analyse the impact of these rules for the next one to two years and then attempt things that we have not been able to do at this point of time.

One of the other key issues that were deliberated on was the legal framework under which these rules should be issued. The rules have been issued as the Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules, 2016 under the Indian Telegraph Act. Under the act, only a licensed authority such as a telecom or internet service provider can approach the municipal bodies for the grant of RoW. Hence, infrastructure providers or IP-1 players cannot take advantage of the new rules, although in the past few years, a substantial amount of over-the-ground infrastructure, such as mobile towers, has been deployed by these players. However, we thought that it would be a good idea to proceed with the licensees because we did not want to tinker with the legal framework as the inclusion of IP-1 players would require a change in legislation, which is more difficult to achieve than the notification of new rules. Bringing infrastructure providers under the ambit of the RoW rules will be considered by the government in the near future.

The RoW rules are just a beginning. The real challenge is the successful enforcement of these rules on the ground. Several state governments have started aligning their policies with the new RoW rules. However, there are considerable differences in execution across states and across multiple local bodies within the states.

Progress of BharatNet

The BharatNet project aims to provide high speed broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats across the country. The project is being implemented in three phases, with around 1.7 million km of OFC planned to be laid under all these phases.

The first phase of the project seeks to connect 100,000 gram panchayats. Against the target of 230,000 km of OFC, around 205,000 km has been laid so far in the first phase. In the next one to two months, the target of 230,000 km would be achieved. Initially, to expedite the project, it was decided to bridge the connectivity from the gram panchayat to the blocks by leveraging the nearest fibre infrastructure of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). However, the degraded quality of BSNL’s existing fibre at several places made it difficult to connect it with the new fibre and slowed down the progress of the project.

In the second phase, we have decided to deploy completely new fibre from the gram panchayats to the blocks. We are laying 48-core fibre cables so that sufficient capacity is built in the system that can be leveraged by telecom operators, internet service providers and cable operators for providing services and for backhaul. By the end of the second phase in early 2019, connectivity will be provided to all 250,000 gram panchayats in the country by using an optimal mix of underground fibre, fibre over power lines (aerial fibre), and radio and satellite media. Our first preference is underground OFC. Our second preference is over-the-ground OFC, because there will be some areas in the country where it will be difficult to lay underground OFC because of difficult terrain such as in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and the north-eastern states. It will be extremely difficult to lay underground OFC in these states or the costs would escalate exponentially. Wherever we cannot reach through these two media, we will use radio and satellite.

In the third phase, to be executed between 2019 and 2023, a state-of-the-art, future-proof network with ring topology, comprising fibre between districts and blocks, will be created.

BharatNet is a huge project. Till 2014, before the project began, the cumulative OFC laid in the country, by both the public and the private sector, was 1.2 million km. Compared to this, we have to lay 1.7 million km of OFC across the country. There are several challenges involved, but the government is committed to providing connectivity to all the 250,000 gram panchayats by early 2019, and thereafter we will take up the augmentation of the network.


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