For the Indian telecommunications industry, 2022 was a significant year, when services took another generational leap, with the launch of 5G in the country. The digital infrastructure industry stood up to the challenge and commenced the task of densification of networks. The roll-out of 5G networks began in October 2022 with a target of 200 cities and suburban regions by March 2023. As of January 1, 2023, there are approximately seven 43,000 telecom towers, roughly 2.42 million base transceiver stations (BTSs) and approximately eight 50,000 BTSs fiberised across India.
To roll out 5G in the country, small cells will be used to upgrade and expand the network, particularly in higher frequency bands with limited range and cannot pass through obstacles and will be used to manage traffic on the network. Using existing street furniture for small cells can avoid the need for new towers and lead to cost-effective and rapid deployment. These small cells will require backhaul connectivity, which can be established through aerial fibre deployment using street furniture. However, the deployment of small cells and aerial fibre on street furniture may be hindered by several issues, including identifying suitable street furniture, electricity board supply, scalability concerns, and local approval and safety issues.
India has approximately 3.5 million km of optical fibre cable and about 36 per cent of towers are fiberised. It is necessary to explore and utilise the opportunities presented by next-generation networks such as 5G and other pioneering network access technologies such as 6G, WiFi7, satcom, etc. As per National Broadband Mission targets, by the end of 2024, 70 per cent of towers will be fiberised. There is, hence, a big challenge to achieve, which will require the government to enhance the scope of infrastructure providers (IP-1s), permitting them to share active infrastructure.
The Government of India has played a pivotal role in ensuring a smooth 5G roll-out and a conducive environment for uptake with considerable investments, policies and reforms. Some of the government initiatives include:
- The Indian government introduced a draft telecommunications bill in September 2022 that would replace existing telecommunications services, networks and infrastructure laws. The aim of the bill is to establish a comprehensive and updated system for regulating telecommunications in the country. It expands definitions of various terms, including “telecommunication service,” and introduces strict regulatory rules for both internet service providers and users.
- The Gati Shakti Sanchar portal was launched to accelerate approvals for fibre and tower installations and can be used by industry players to apply for 5G services. This portal envisages bringing transparency, accountability and responsiveness to all stakeholders while processing the application. It has further helped in ease of doing business as the application process for installation of digital infrastructure is being delayed due to inconsistency and uncertainty of policy and processes. It requires fast-tracking of the application process to overcome the implementation challenges of the Right-of-Way (RoW) rules. This would provide a robust mechanism to achieve the “Broadband to All” goal as envisaged in the National Digital Communication Policy, 2018. The portal has been a game changer and brought down the average processing time of applications from more than 200 days to about nine days.
- The government plans to set up 100 labs in India for 5G technology development and collaboration amongst the private sector, academia and the government.
- The BharatNet project aims to provide broadband connectivity to approximately 260,000 gram panchayats and is being implemented in phases to connect every village through optical fibre by 2025.
- The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) amended the RoW Rules and launched the Indian Telegraph RoW – Amendment Rules, 2022, to facilitate faster 5G roll-out, clarify the term “street furniture”, and allow for bulk processing of applications.
- The Ministry of Railways announced its revised RoW policy, which permitted private telecom companies to install towers on land owned by the ministry. It would also enable users travelling by train to get a better experience. The railways’ 70 divisions will now also allow the installation of small cells and pole mounts in station premises and offices. The move to allow licensing of railway land to private entities for the installation of telecom towers shall bring down costs and boost efficiency and telecom connectivity.
- The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has acknowledged the important role of telecom and suggested in a report, titled “Recommendations on Use of Street Furniture for Small Cell and Aerial Fibre Deployment” dated November 29, 2022, that telecom sites should be given access to electricity at industrial or utility tariffs.
- TRAI released a consultation paper on telecommunication infrastructure sharing, spectrum sharing and spectrum leasing on January 13, 2023. DoT, through its letter dated February 10, 2022, stated that “in order to promote optimum resource utilisation among the licensees, it is proposed to allow sharing of all kinds of telecom infrastructure and network elements among all categories of service providers”.
Key emerging trends
5G subscription in India is estimated to reach 500 million subscribers, with a penetration rate of approximately 40 per cent by 2027. Mobile data traffic in India will grow by a factor of four, from 2022 to 2027, and India will be amongst the highest mobile data consuming nations with a record 50 GB of monthly average data use per subscriber by 2027, outpacing the US, China and other developed countries. 5G technology will allow for the deployment of new and innovative technologies such as internet of things (IoT), which will allow for the interconnectedness of everyday devices and appliances, leading to a more efficient and smarter society.
Technologically developed cities will use various devices and sensors to collect information to efficiently manage assets, resources and services to improve operations. 5G-connected equipment will use seamless mobile network coverage, thus reducing the need for fixed wiring and work in sync with other portable devices such as drones and robots.
5G-enabled autonomous inspection drones will have communication capabilities to coordinate the collected information quickly and relay important images, such as scans of critical infrastructure and accident sites to the relevant authorities. They will be useful for border security, forest and wildlife conservation, traffic monitoring, crime control and illegal activity prevention, disaster management and crowd control.
Travel and transport
Secure, seamless and high performing cellular technology will create a host of innovations for smarter airports, railways, shipping ports, connected vehicles and smart logistics. 5G will allow operations to be smarter, more flexible and more secure to handle changes in technology, demography and economy. Automation and analytics will enable more efficient operations, while reducing operational costs.
Surveillance and traffic management
5G CCTV security cameras will run wireless audio and video signals on the 5G Wi-Fi band, leading to higher video analysis capabilities and processing using artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning. AI-embedded cameras with sensors will ensure traffic monitoring, prevention of speeding and dangerous driving, while regulating vehicle flow within an area.
With the new network and built-in MEC (multi-access edge computing), manufacturers will be able to operate using automated guided vehicles, which can respond to obstacles in less than 10 milliseconds. Further, asset monitoring can be performed with digital twins and sensors, enabling maximum efficiency.
Energy and utilities
5G networks will enable the deployment of smart grid technologies and IoT in the energy and utilities sector, allowing for more efficient and sustainable energy management.
5G networks will enable precision farming, using drones, sensors and other IoT devices to optimise crop yields, reduce waste and improve sustainability.
India has made significant progress in telecommunications with the roll-out of 5G networks. It is looking to participate in developing global 6G standards by forming the 6G Technology Innovation Group. The future growth of the telecom industry in India is expected to be driven by advances in 5G and 6G, which have the potential to improve communication and connectivity, increase efficiency and drive economic growth. However, challenges such as expanding optical fibre coverage and improving cybersecurity policies must be addressed. With the right approach, the Indian digital infrastructure industry has the potential to establish strong recognition in the global market and play a key role in realising the vision of Digital India. Digital infrastructure development is crucial for the digital economy and should consider factors such as digital availability, access, appetite and abilities.