Tejinder Kalra, chief operating officer, Indus Towers

The telecom tower infrastructure industry has played a critical role in fuelling the growth of Indian telecom services. As the Indian telecom technology landscape evolves further, towercos are gearing up to take a bigger role by tapping into new opportunities like 5G, in building solutions, smart cities, etc. At a recent tele.net conference, Tejinder Kalra, chief operating officer, Indus Towers, spoke about the emerging trends, key drivers, new business opportunities and industry outlook. Edited excerpts…

Emerging trends

Telcos are overhauling their transport networks to address the growing data demand. They are building transport aggregation sites, which are like mini mobile switching centres. These sites need different capabilities to build and need far more resilience in terms of uptime. So, towercos are now evolving to build and manage these kinds of sites.

Further, 5G roll-out will see the emergence of several edge data centres in order to take data nearer to the point of consumption. Given towercos’ experience in handling transport aggregation sites and distributed assets, they are best placed to set up and operate such sites.

The deployment of fibre, especially in the last mile, is also emerging as a key trend. However, in the present Covid situation, a huge quantum of data is getting consumed indoors owing to work from home, remote schooling, etc. This brings in the need for strong in-building coverage with high speed throughput. Therefore, there is focus on in-building solutions, such as DAS, Small Cells FTTH etc. and building up this infrastructure is quite synergetic to Towerco’s existing business play.

Focus areas for Indus Towers

  • Digitalisation: We are using software and geofenced apps and tools for field operations, site acquisition and deployment and these efforts have been further ramped up given the Covid outbreak. For instance, we have used Google Maps to plot all the red, amber and green zones on a real-time basis to ensure our field teams are accessing only those sites that are safe.
  • Remote operations: We have been trying to do as much as we can remotely to optimise the footfall at sites and gain greater control over our tower operations. Our highly evolved TOC (Tower Operations Centre) plays a vital role in scaling up remote operations capability.
  • Energy management and optimisation: We have been striving to make our site operations diesel-free, and we are quite advanced in that journey.
  • Lean tower structures: Given the need of the operators to build coverage in Rural areas, we are focusing to build lean ground based and roof top structures to provide them cost effective options.

New business and revenue opportunities

5G is a massive opportunity in front of us. It is much more than just data and speed as it is highly use-case-driven. It can allow us to work with multiple industry verticals directly

In-building solutions can be seen as another big opportunity and we can collaborate with telcos to help them expand their reach. Small cells, DAS, FTTH are all possible opportunities that we can scale up quite rapidly.

Interestingly, there are several new opportunities in the non-telco space as well. Tower business is akin to location business and our site locations can be monetised for hosting IoT sensors, setting up EV charging infrastructure, advertising, etc. We have already done some successful pilots is these areas.

In addition, Smart cities is another big opportunity area, where all these use cases can be applied as well. Indus is currently working on three smart city projects and there are more in the pipeline

Key issues and challenges

While Towerco business is evolved quite a bit in the last few years and both the operators and the government see this as a vehicle for cost effective telecom infrastructure building, we still continue to reel with some challenges.

We are working with all state governments to come out with a Tower Policy which is aligned with   Central Government’s uniform tower policy. While some state governments have come out with their tower policies, there is a lot more work to be done in this area.

Further, reliable and good quality power supply at tower sites is still a challenge. We do talk of a power-surplus scenario in India, but that is more at the grid level. The distribution networks are weak in the last mile, especially in rural areas and this forces us to put diesel generation sets at sites which is not only additional cost but also adds to carbon footprint.

At the same time, there continues to be several misconceptions around EMF radiation and its impact which results in resistance towards the development of telecom infrastructure in key cities.

Industry outlook

I am quite optimistic and believe that the future of this industry is bright. There are several opportunities that must be leveraged by developing the right business models and partnerships. Interestingly, owing to Covid, telecom infrastructure has become even more relevant  and is the backbone of the telecom services sector on which almost all businesses are running today. The telecom infrastructure industry will gain even greater relevance in the post-Covid scenario.