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RoW Roadblock: Need for uniformity in state-level policies

March 23, 2018

The Indian telecom sector has outpaced several other markets globally in terms of user base and data usage. However, the sector still has a lot of catching up to do in terms of deployment of critical telecom infrastructure. Telecom operators and tower companies continue to face bottlenecks, most of them policy related, in setting up telecom infrastructure. There is no uniformity in the norms followed by different states for tower installations or fibre roll-outs. Approval processes are cumbersome and exorbitant rates are charged by various agencies. As a result, several key cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chandigarh, Jaipur and Patna have far fewer towers than are needed, as is evident from the growing call drop situation in the country.

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) issued right-of-way (RoW) rules in November 2016, which provided for no restriction on the location of telecom towers, a single-window clearance mechanism, a defined time period for approvals, the appointment of nodal officers, nominal administrative fees and approval from the authorities concerned. More than a year has passed but these rules have failed to bring any notable changes in easing the RoW process for telecom players. One of the reasons for this could be the failure of various states to align their existing rules and practices with the central government policy. State governments have a big role to play in implementing the new rules and bringing the desired change in the infrastructure roll-out mechanism. However, only a handful of states such as Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Odisha, Haryana, Maharashtra and, most recently, Assam have introduced a policy framework that focuses on addressing service provider grievances and easing the roll-out of telecom infrastructure.

Snapshot of state policies

Jharkhand

The Jharkhand government released the Jharkhand Communication Towers and Related Structures Policy in December 2015 to foster the development of communications and information technology (IT) infrastructure in the state. The policy specifies various initiatives to ease the installation of mobile towers. It provides for a single-window clearance system for all new and pending applications for the installation of new mobile towers. It also allows for mobile towers to be set up at all types of government and semi-government, residential, industrial and institutional buildings, and on open land. Further, the policy states that the sealing of towers and electricity disconnections will not be permitted without the consent of DoT’s telecom enforcement, resource and monitoring cells.

Rajasthan

The Rajasthan government released its draft telecom infrastructure policy in February 2016. As per the draft, mobile towers cannot be installed on premises which are 15 metres or less from the boundary wall of schools (excluding colleges and universities), hospitals or sports grounds, within a 500 metre radius of a jail campus, or within a distance of 300 metres from the notified boundary of any protected monument. Further, the draft policy prohibits the setting up of telecom infrastructure towers without permission from the commissioner or executive officer in municipal areas, the secretary of the Urban Improvement Trust and the development authorities in urban areas, and the subdivisional magistrate in rural areas. A no-objection certificate from the traffic police is also mandatory. Damage to roads due to the erection of ground-based mast, and laying of underground cables and the need for filling up pits will be addressed by the concerned local bodies, which will charge infrastructure providers double the rate of the restoration cost of the damaged portion.

Odisha

The state government recently notified the Odisha Mobile Towers, OFC and related Telecom Infrastructure Policy, 2017 to regulate the installation of mobile towers and laying of optical fibre cable (OFC) in the state. The policy lays strong emphasis on streamlining the application process, granting approvals within a reasonable time frame, rationalising the procedures and liberalising permission fees. It also seeks to encourage development of telecommunication networks in the remote, hilly and left-wing extremism-affected areas of Odisha, and augmentation of terrestrial broadband connectivity in urban and rural areas. The directive has also removed all restrictions on the location of tower installations unless ordered otherwise by courts or relevant authorities. As per the policy, the licensee can also share the towers with multiple telecom service providers (TSPs) for installing antennas and other active equipment.

Haryana

The Haryana Communication and Connectivity Policy, 2017 seeks to encourage the adoption of the latest technologies in the telecom sector like fibre-to-the-home and innovative business models such as the open access network. As per the policy, the permission for RoW or right of use and the installation of the associated infrastructure will be provided to an eligible applicant on a non-exclusive basis. However, given the space constraints for RoW for multiple service providers in any specific area, the first-mover advantage principle would be applicable and any subsequent entrant will have to share the infrastructure capacity already laid by the first-moving service provider. The policy also advises the state agencies and private developers to earmark a predefined route alignment along the internal road circulation network in line with the required specifications so as to avoid repeated digging. Further, it encourages the state development agencies to provide for ducts and lay OFCs with sufficient bandwidth capacity and redundancy, as part of their future development plans, which may be leased out to operators on a recurring charge basis. The policy also proposes a single-window mechanism for submitting and processing applications.

Maharashtra

The Maharashtra government announced a new telecom infrastructure policy in January 2018, which will help in creating and maintaining the telecom infrastructure for its citizen-centric digital initiatives. As per the policy, the Maharashtra government’s Directorate of Information Technology portal has been made single window for obtaining RoW clearances. Moreover, an online portal would be created for providing permission to the service providers. In addition, by July 31, 2018, service providers need to present their annual plans for laying optical fibre networks to the state government.

The policy intervention comes after various stakeholders, including TSPs and internet providers, repeatedly urged the state government to bring changes to its existing policies for telecom infrastructure roll-out and align it with DoT’s RoW rules. Until now, local municipal bodies such as the Pune Municipal Corporation and the Bombay Municipal Corporation followed their own guidelines and initiated suo moto coercive action such as sealing of mobile towers and disconnecting electricity supply for mobile towers.

Assam

Mobile connectivity in Assam received the much-needed boost, with the state recently issuing RoW guidelines for TSPs. The new rules will now provide for a framework to give approvals and settle disputes in a time-bound manner, as well as improve coordination between telecom operators and government authorities. The new policy guidelines will also help operators to establish telecom towers in uncovered areas of the state and upgrade the existing 2G-based base stations to 3G/4G. Further, the entire process will be made online within a year, for which the IT department of the state will constitute a team. All operators have been mandated to register on the ease of doing business portal of the Assam government.

Located in the north-eastern part of the country, Assam  has been bereft of adequate telecom infrastructure, leading to call drops and poor quality of service, and hindering broadband penetration. The state has also faced hurdles in setting up telecom towers and laying cables as municipal bodies and the local populace have often teamed up against TSPs and tower companies.

Long way to go

Clearly, only a handful of states have their telecom infrastructure policies in place. Moreover, these policies have several grey areas that need attention in order to enable smooth implementation of telecom infrastructure projects. For instance, although the Rajasthan government’s draft policy seeks to address radiation threats, it has included several provisions for the installation of towers. However, unlike DoT’s 2013 guidelines, it has imposed restrictions regarding the location of towers, sought multiple documents and levied high permission fees.

Meanwhile, the Madhya Pradesh draft policy is pending notification since 2015. It imposes multiple fee levies of up to Rs 100,000, lacks a single-window clearance, restricts the location of towers and mast height, offers limited government land and provides permission only for five years. Gujarat’s policy focuses on only the installation of towers for 4G technology rather than the holistic development of telecom infrastructure. It imposes multiple levies like an annual renewal fee, a security deposit, a one-time charge for telecom infrastructure installation and escalation of the annual fee by 10 per cent every three years.

There are various states that neither have a comprehensive framework in place for establishing a robust telecom infrastructure nor adhere to the central government norms. As per the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association (TAIPA), mobile tower firms in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have been facing serious issues for many years now, but there is no resolution in sight.

Going forward, uniformity in the policy framework between the centre and the states is much needed in order to expand network reach and thereby provide better quality of service to citizens.


 
 

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