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NDCP 2018: Policy pointers for ushering in Digital Revolution

June 22, 2018

India’s digital profile and footprint are fast changing with growing digitisation and digitalisation of services. The country has over 1 billion mobile phone users and digital identities, and half a billion internet users. India’s mobile data consumption is already the highest in the world. In 2017 alone, over 200 million Indians took to mobile banking and digital payments.

The telecom sector is at the forefront of driving this digital transformation. As telecom converges with digital, industry stakeholders are taking up bigger roles and moving beyond traditional services. The advent of new and emerging technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence (AI) and internet of things (IoT) has further propelled the sector on a digital trajectory.

Such transformation calls for a major overhauling of the existing policy and regulatory framework, which had been formulated in a different time and age. In this context, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) recently released the draft of a new telecom policy. Rightly called the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018, it aims to provide a roadmap for ushering in a digital revolution in the country.

The draft policy focuses on connecting the unconnected Indians and catapulting the connected ones to a new phase of futuristic technologies. It rests on three important pillars: Connect India, to create robust digital communications infrastructure and promote broadband for all; Propel India, to enable next-gen technologies such as 5G, AI, IoT, cloud and big data through investments, innovation and intellectual property rights generation; and Secure India, to ensure data ownership, privacy and security. Several strategies have been devised under each pillar. Many of them are new proposals, while some are reiterated versions of previous telecom policies. In addition, the draft policy proposes several regulatory reforms aimed at attracting investments worth $100 billion in the digital communications sector by 2022.

tele.net takes a look at the draft policy’s key focus areas and its potential impact on the industry…

Broadband coverage

The policy aims to ensure universal broadband access through the implementation of various initiatives such as BharatNet (providing high-speed broadband connectivity to gram panchayats), GramNet (connecting key rural development institutions), NagarNet (deploying 1 million public Wi-Fi hotspots in urban areas) and JanWi-Fi (deploying 2 million Wi-Fi hotspots in rural areas). According to Rajesh Mishra, co-founder, president and chief technology officer, Parallel Wireless, “The policy will have a far-reaching impact. Access to robust broadband connectivity is critical for the digital empowerment of the people.”

With a greater focus on fibre, the draft policy talks about creating a National Fibre Authority, establishing common service ducts and utility corridors in all new city and highway road projects, and incentivising fibre connectivity for new developmental construction. The policy lays emphasis on the fiberisation of at least 60 per cent tower sites against a mere 20 per cent currently.

Boost to telecom infrastructure

In a major move, the draft policy proposes to accord critical and essential infrastructure status to the telecom infrastructure industry, thereby bringing communication infrastructure at par with other connectivity infrastructure like roadways and railways. “This will not only aid proliferation of telecom services, but also facilitate low-cost financing,” says Harsh Walia, associate partner, Khaitan & Co. The policy also suggests allowing infrastructure providers to share active infrastructure, which would lead to potential cost savings for the industry, besides opening up new opportunities.

Rationalisation of fees and levies

The draft document lays emphasis on reviewing and rationalising its existing licence fee, Universal Service Obligation Fund levy, spectrum usage charges (SUC), etc. It proposes that the SUC should only reflect administrative costs. If implemented, this would give a major respite to operators, who are currently reeling under debt and unprecedented losses.

Spectrum management and availability

The draft policy focuses on the optimal availability and pricing of spectrum, as well as simplifying the process of obtaining permissions from various agencies such as WPC and SACFA. Further, it promotes the utilisation of spectrum in the 3 GHz to 24 GHz band range for providing next-generation services. It also promotes the utilisation of spectrum in E-band and V-band for backhauling towers.

Focus on emerging technologies

The draft document focuses on creating a roadmap for emerging technologies such as 5G, AI, robotics, IoT, cloud computing and machine-to-machine (M2M), and their use in the communications sector. For 5G deployment, it talks about the availability of adequate spectrum and development of robust backhaul capacity. As for M2M/IoT, the draft policy focuses on creating an appropriate security framework, besides earmarking adequate licensed/unlicensed spectrum. It also mentions allocating 13-digit numbers for all M2M mobile connections, and briefly talks about developing an enabling policy framework for cloud systems, content delivery networks, international data centres and over-the-top services. Besides, the draft policy promotes opportunities in the areas of big data, AI and smart cities.

Data protection and safety

The draft policy focuses on establishing a strong, flexible and robust data protection regime to safeguard the privacy, autonomy and choice of citizens. It emphasises that net neutrality principles must be upheld and be aligned with service requirements, bandwidth availability and network capabilities of next-generation access technologies.

Others

The draft policy proposes the appointment of a telecom ombudsman and the setting up of a centralised web-based complaint redressal system to safeguard consumer interests. Notably, it also talks about establishing exit norms for licensees and aligning them with the bankruptcy code in order to maximise system efficiencies and consumer interests. The policy further focuses on simplifying approvals/ processes for research and development (R&D) procurement, creating a framework for the testing and certification of new products/services, creating a fund for promoting research and development in new technologies, and fostering an intellectual property rights regime that promotes innovation.

The devil is in the detail

While the draft policy has broadly received a positive response from industry stakeholders, there is a consensus that it remains open-ended or silent on some key points. For instance, it talks about spectrum allocation in the E and V bands in line with international practices, but it does not clearly mention whether this spectrum will be auctioned or allocated administratively. Further, it largely remains silent on the exclusion of IP-1s from the Telegraph Right of Way Rules, 2016, which currently applies to only licensed telecom service providers. It backs the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s suggestion of “light-touch” regulation for cloud services, which may stifle innovation. While DoT has envisaged devising a sector-specific data protection framework, a draft of the general data protection legislation for India is already under way. The existence of two data protection regimes may lead to complexities and compliance-related issues.

Further, the draft policy’s estimate of attracting $100 billion worth investments by 2022 is highly conservative. According to Rajan S. Mathews, director general, Cellular Operators’ Association of India, “Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio have together committed to invest Rs 740 billion this year alone, which is more than 10 per cent of the total government estimate.” That said, raising any amount of money will not be easy as domestic banks are not lending to operators and industry revenues are on a downward spiral.

As for efficient spectrum utilisation and management, T.V. Ramachandran, president, Broadband India Forum, notes that there is obviously much to be done to improve the effectiveness of auctions, and the design has to change significantly in order to meet policy objectives.

Conclusion

The draft NDCP 2018 seems to have the right look and feel. It proposes to address certain long-standing concerns and steer the country into a digital era. “However, only effective implementation will determine the growth of the sector,” cautions T.R. Dua, director general, Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association. The true intent of the measures will only be visible when they are supported by enabling regulatory and policy actions.

The draft policy is currently being discussed amongst various stakeholders and based on their inputs, the government will give final shape to the policy, which will lay the foundation for next telecom revolution in the country.

Akanksha Mahajan Marwah

 
 

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