ICT has played an instrumental role in the modernisation and transformation of industries, and the promotion of inclusive economic growth. In fact, telecommunications is proving to be a veritable game changer by bridging the rural-urban divide in the country. Over the past few years, the government has undertaken several key projects to improve connectivity across the country’s hinterland. Under its flagship programme, BharatNet, nearly 600,000 villages are being connected through more than 400,000 km of optical fibre cable and satellite communication services. The small and remote islands of Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep, and other inaccessible areas are also being connected through submarine cable networks. For urban areas, the government aims to bring in 5G services expeditiously. To this end, it is working on outlining an appropriate road map. At various recent industry events as well as in parliamentary sessions, Sanjay Shamrao Dhotre, union minister of state for education, communications, and electronics and information technology, spoke about the country’s ongoing digital transformation, the role of the telecom sector in this transformation, and the emergence of new technologies such as 5G. Edited excerpts from his speeches at various industry events…
Progress under the National Broadband Mission
The National Broadband Mission was launched on December 17, 2019, with a vision to fast-track the growth of the digital communications infrastructure, bridge the urban-rural divide for digital empowerment and inclusion, and provide affordable and universal access to broadband for all. The mission envisages achieving deliverables such as broadband connectivity to all villages, availability of high broadband speeds, acceleration of fiberisation, increased tower density and fiberisation of telecom towers, and fibre mapping. It aims to provide broadband access to all villages in the country by 2022 by utilising appropriate technologies, including optical fibre, radio networks, and satellite.
Update on 5G spectrum auctions and launch
In March 2021, the government conducted an auction of spectrum in the 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz, 2300 MHz and 2500 MHz bands. Spectrum acquired through the auction can be used to provide services using any technology including 5G. The entire available spectrum, 2308.80 MHz, with a total valuation of Rs 4 trillion at the reserve price, was put to auction. In the auction, bids for 855.60 MHz of spectrum with a total valuation of Rs 778.2 billion were received. The spectrum was sold in 74 LSA-band combinations. A total of Rs 219.18 billion has already been received as upfront payment for financial year 2020-21.
5G services will be introduced gradually and will advance to a full range of services as the ecosystem and demand for services grow. Telcos are free to deploy any technology using spectrum acquired through auctions, or liberalised spectrum. Further, the government has reduced the notice period for testing any new technology base station while rolling out networks. This will provide more flexibility to telecom service providers when deploying new technologies.
The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has not initiated the process of rolling out the 5G network yet. However, steps have been initiated for the trial of India-specific 5G applications and use cases. Earlier, in March 2018, the government had approved a multi-institute collaborative project to set up an indigenous 5G test bed at a total cost of Rs 2.24 billion. The collaborating institutes include IIT Madras, IIT Delhi, IIT Hyderabad, IIT Bombay, IIT Kanpur, IISc Bengaluru, Society for Applied Microwave Electronics Engineering & Research and Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology. The project envisages setting up an end-to-end open 5G test bed in a distributed architecture model. The project will enable Indian academia and industry to validate their products, prototypes and algorithms. It will also provide facilities for experimenting and demonstrating 5G applications/use cases.
Recently, the government has notified the production-linked incentives scheme for telecom and networking products manufacturing, large-scale electronics manufacturing and IT hardware, which includes mobile phones, 4G/5G telecom products, internet of things and IT hardware.
At present, there are about 500,000 Wi-Fi access points across the country. The government has recently approved the Prime Minister Wireless Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) framework to enhance the proliferation of broadband across the country through public Wi-Fi networks. This framework envisages the setting up of public Wi-Fi hotspots by entrepreneurs. It further envisages last-mile broadband connectivity through a network of public Wi-Fi access points. The backhaul requirement for these Wi-Fi access points will be met through internet bandwidth provided by telecom service providers/internet service providers.
Under the distributed architecture and unbundling of functions, the WANI ecosystem consists of players that will not be required to obtain any licence or pay any licence fee. These are:
- Public data offices (PDOs): To establish, maintain and operate WANI-compliant Wi-Fi access points and deliver broadband services to subscribers.
- Public data office aggregators (PDOA): Aggregators of PDOs to perform functions relating to authorisation and accounting.
- App providers: To register users and discover WANI-compliant Wi-Fi hotspots in a nearby area and display the same on the app for accessing internet services.
- Central registry: To maintain, in accordance with the WANI architecture and specifications, the details of app providers, PDOAs and PDOs.
As of March 2021, 33,845 Wi-Fi access points have been installed across the country.
Connectivity in rural and remote areas
It is estimated that out of 597,618 inhabited villages (as per Census 2011) in the country, a total of 558,537 villages have 3G or 4G mobile wireless coverage. This estimate is further reinforced by the extraordinary four times rise in the number of smartphones in India, from 165 million in 2014 to 700 million in 2020. It is gathered that a good number of these smartphones are also in the hinterland. Similarly, data usage has increased 130 times, from 89.4 MB per subscriber per month in 2014 to 12.1 GB per subscriber per month in 2020.
The government is also implementing the BharatNet project to provide broadband/high speed internet connectivity to all the gram panchayats (approximately 250,000) in the country. As of February 2021, a total number of 154,096 GPs including block headquarters have been made service-ready with broadband infrastructure. As part of the BharatNet project, last-mile connectivity is being provided through Wi-Fi or any other suitable broadband technology, including fibre-to-the-home (FTTH). So far, by utilising the BharatNet network, Wi-Fi hotspots have been installed at 103,400 GPs, and 495,078 FTTH connections have been provided.
Meanwhile, a project is under way for the provision of mobile services in left-wing extremism-affected areas. Under Phase I, 2,343 towers have been installed, while under Phase II, provision for 2,542 towers is under way. A Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan is under implementation for the north-eastern region to provide mobile coverage in uncovered villages, along with national highways, and to strengthen the transmission network. A scheme is under implementation for providing mobile connectivity in 354 uncovered villages of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, border areas and other priority areas. A scheme for the provisioning of 4G-based mobile services in 502 uncovered villages of aspirational districts of four states – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – has also been finalised.
Telcos are required to ensure that the call-drop rate in their mobile networks remains within the benchmarks laid down by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. The number of incidents of call drops/improper network coverage reported to DoT through the centralised public grievance redressal and monitoring system during 2018, 2019 and 2020 stood at 1,678, 1,162 and 298 respectively. Over the years, DoT has taken several policy initiatives to facilitate infrastructure growth for the delivery of quality services. These include permitting trading, sharing and liberalisation of spectrum, allowing passive and active infrastructure sharing, notifying the Right of Way Rules, 2016, and making available government land/buildings for the installation of towers.
Nearly 1.57 million additional base transceiver stations (BTSs) for 2G/3G/4G-LTE services have been added by telcos during the period March 2014 (0.65 million) to March 2021 (2.23 million) across the country. Moreover, in order to obtain direct feedback from subscribers, DoT has launched an interactive voice response system (IVRS), wherein around 44.4 million subscribers have been individually contacted since December 2016, of which 6.1 million subscribers have participated in the survey. The feedback is shared with the telcos for taking corrective action in a time-bound manner. As a result, about 0.15 million individual cases of call drops have been resolved so far and around 7,395 BTSs have been installed by telcos to specifically resolve the call drop issues reported through the IVRS.