India’s digital infrastructure segment saw an action-packed year in 2022. The stakeholders were focused on strengthening the country’s digital infrastructure to pave the way for 5G network roll-out. Telecom towers, fibre infrastructure, satcom, street furniture and undersea cables were among the digital infrastructure segments that witnessed immense activity during the year.

On the policy front, the government launched the Draft Indian Telecommuni­ca­tions Bill, 2022, which made noteworthy and useful changes to the right-of-way (RoW) framework. Other notable developments were the launch of the Gati Shak­ti Sanchar portal and new amendments to the RoW Rules to facilitate 5G roll-outs.

With India riding high on the 5G wa­ve, investments in digital infrastructure are only going to increase in the coming years, opening up a plethora of opportunities for stakeholders.

A look at the key developments that shaped the digital infrastructure space du­ring 2022 and the way forward…

Expansion of towers and fibre

Throughout 2022, several initiatives were taken to scale up traditional infrastructure like towers and fibre across the country. In January 2022, the government announced plans to add as many as 800,000 new mo­bile towers over the next two years to inc­re­ase the current tower strength by over two times. The aim is to increase the number of towers from around 680,000 in January 20222 to over 1.5 million by 2024.

Apart from this, the government wants to ensure that nearly three out of four towers are connected through optic fibre to in­­crease their data-carrying capacity. With the implementation of the plan, tower den­sity is expected to go up from 0.4 to 1 per 1,000 population by the end of Mar­ch 2024. Further, the government announ­ced plans to increase the number of villages fi­berised from 260,000 to 600,000 by 2025. Under the BharatNet project, Jhar­khand became the first state in the country to provide connectivity to all gram panchayats (GPs) under the state-led model of the Bha­rat­Net programme. To this end, HFCL com­pleted connectivity of 1,789 GPs th­ro­ugh gigabit passive optical network (GPON) by laying 7,765 km of OFC. Mo­re­over, Tamil Nadu Fibre­Net Corpo­ra­tion Li­mited awarded a contra­ct to deploy 16,500 km of fibre network in nine districts to Polycab India Limited.

Draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022

A notable development on the policy front was the launch of the draft Indian Tele­co­mmunication Bill, 2022. While the bill is currently under the consultation process, it has made certain provisions related to in­­frastructure. For one, the bill has made noteworthy and useful clarifications in the RoW framework. The proposed regulatory framework facilitates RoW for any “facility provider” building telecom infrastructure. A facility provider includes any li­censee or registered entity, including any contractor, subcontractor or agent working for the centre or for a licensee. How­ever, there are some ambiguities that need to be resolved during the consultation pro­cess. For instance, it defines infrastructure as only physical assets such as towers and fibre. This is in conflict with the In­ternational Telecommunication Union’s de­finition of digital infrastructure, and thus needs to be expanded to include elements such as data centres, undersea cab­les and content delivery networks.

Launch of Gati Shakti Sanchar portal and new amendments to ease RoW

To ease the RoW process, the central government launched the Gati Shakti Sanchar portal, a single-window clearance mechanism for applications where all applications for RoW made anywhere can be pro­cessed and the status of such applications can be ascertained at a glance.

The centralised portal enables telecom service providers, infrastructure providers, internet service providers and others to ap­ply for RoW approval for laying optical fibre cable (OFC) and erecting telecom infrastructure (such as towers). Applica­tio­ns to various agencies of the states/union territories (UTs), central ministries and local bodies can be submitted via this single window. The portal is integrated with the RoW portals of various central ministries as well as with state RoW portals.

As per the central RoW dashboard data, 36 states and UTs have been onboar­ded to the portal. The Department of Telecom­m­u­nications (DoT) has received 159,069 RoW applications, of which 70,415 applications have been approved, 35,607 have been rejected, 30,170 are pending and 7,708 ap­plications have been reverted.

Among states, Madhya Pradesh was the first to develop an online RoW portal wh­­ile Telangana was the first state to start a WhatsApp group and introduce the “call before you dig” policy. Besides, Maharash­tra became the first state to provide electricity board tariffs for the telecom industry at industrial rates.

Later, in August 2022, DoT announ­ced new amendments to the Indian Tele­graph RoW Rules, 2016, to expedite telecom infrastructure roll-out for 5G networks. It also added a new 5G RoW ap­plication form on the Gati Shakti Sanchar portal to enable faster 5G roll-out in In­dia. The amendments simplified the RoW application procedures for small cells. Further, it allowed telecom licensees to use street infrastructure to deploy telecom equipment at a nominal cost of Rs 150 per an­num in rural areas and Rs 300 per an­num in urban areas. Further, street infrastructure may be utilised at a nominal cost of Rs 100 per annum to install over-ground optical fibre.

Further, DoT rationalised the administrative fees that telecom licensees were earlier required to pay for RoW permissions. As per the amendments, no administrative fee would be charged by the central government or its agencies for the es­tablishment of poles on the land owned or controlled by them, whereas the fee shall be limited to Rs 1,000 per pole for states/UTs.

Amendment in scope of IP-1s and other go­v­ernment initiatives

In addition to easing RoW, the government took other key initiatives to facilitate infrastructure roll-out. In early 2022, it is­sued guidelines for the installation of mo­bile phone towers at and near airports. As per the guidelines, applications seeking ap­provals pending with the Airports Autho­rity of India and the Joint Communi­cations and Electronic Staff would be deemed cleared if they were not considered within 30 days from the date of filing.

Further, DoT awarded the infrastructure provider (IP) Category I registration li­cence to the Kerala Fibre Optic Net­work (KFON). As per the official registration with DoT, KFON will have the au­thority to acquire, prepare, maintain, re­­pair, rent, le­ase or sell fibre optic lines (dark fibre), du­ct space, towers, networks and other facilities.

Recently, in November 2022, DoT am­­­­en­ded the scope of infrastructure pro­vi­der Category I (IP-1) registrations. Ea­r­lier, sharing of assets such as dark fi­bre, RoW, duct space and mobile towers of te­lecom infrastructure companies was allo­wed on mutually agreed terms and con­­­ditions. However, the amendments state that IP-1 registration holders will sh­a­re the aforementioned infrastructure with en­tities as may be specified by the government in the interest of national security and public interest as per the terms and co­nditions that may be specified by the government. Further, in December 2022, the Mini­stry of Railways allowed private companies to install towers on land owned by Indian Railways.

Steps to leverage street furniture for 5G network densification

A number of initiatives were undertaken to promote the use of street furniture to ease 5G roll-outs. One of these included the mo­nitoring and mapping of street furniture such as electric poles, traffic lights, bus terminals, bus shelters and government buildings by several states. The move was taken after the logistics division of the Depart­ment for Promotion of Industry and In­ternal Trade issued a memorandum to all the states to map these sites.

Further, the Telecom Regulatory Au­tho­rity of India (TRAI) concluded a pilot survey on street furniture in Madhya Pradesh. The regulator also initiated a con­sultation process on the “Use of Street Furniture for Small Cells and Aerial Fibre Deployment” and released its recommendations on the issue in November 2022. A key recommendation was to earmark dedicated spaces in the existing and planned buildings for installing digital connectivity infrastructure, including small and ma­cro cells, by all central government entities. In addition, TRAI noted that street furniture should be shared among telecom firms and stressed the need to further amend the RoW Rules.

State governments prioritise digital infrastr­ucture creation

The state governments stepped up their efforts to facilitate the creation of digital in­frastructure and improve network connectivity. During the year, the Tamil Nadu government notified the Tamil Nadu Tele­com Infrastructure Policy, 2022. These by-laws are applicable to all city areas, municipal councils, town municipal councils, town panchayats, etc. and include te­le­com towers and OFC (aerial and underground). Further, the Karnataka and Gu­jarat governments notified their RoW policies in line with the central government’s rules.

The Rajasthan government issued an order to further reduce the charges for laying aerial OFC to Rs 1,000 per pole an­nually, Rs 2,000 per manhole per chamber at district headquarters and Rs 1,000 per manhole per chamber in other towns, making the roll-out of OFC more cost ef­fective for the future. The Rajasthan, Punjab and Kerala governments also constituted task forces to oversee the use of government infrastructure/street furniture to roll out 5G networks and issue necessa­ry amendments.

Recently, the Maharashtra government announced the Telecommuni­cations Infra­str­uc­ture Guidelines for Urban Lo­cal Bodies, 2022 to improve coverage and increase te­ledensity in urban areas. The guidelines cover over-ground and underground telecom infrastructure such as telecommunication infrastructure towers, ground base to­wers, rooftop towers, roof­top poles, cell phone towers, transmission towers, cell on wheels, in-building solutions and micro cells.

The lieutenant governor of Delhi also approved the RoW policy for digitalisation, telephony and smooth roll-out of 5G services in the region.

Satcom, the next big thing

The satellite communications (Satcom) space witnessed significant activity during the year. OneWeb in collaboration with Bharti Airtel, and Reliance Jio in partnership with SES under the name Jio Satellite Com­m­unications received global mobile personal communication by satellite licen­ces. They are eagerly awaiting the satellite spectrum policy. In September, Hughes Communi­cations India launched India’s first high-throughput satellite broadband service in partnership with the Indian Space Resea­r­ch Organisation. The service will provide connectivity to remote mountainous areas.

In November 2022, the government an­nounced a number of reforms focused on the satcom domain. These reforms we­re released to streamline processes and enable service providers to quickly roll out networks. Further, they included a reduction in compliance burdens that will help make satcom networks much more affordable in the coming years.

Strengthening undersea cable connectivity

Subsea cables continued witnessing expansion during 2022. On the government fr­ont, DoT approved a telecom package for the Kochi-Lakshadweep submarine optical fibre connectivity project. The cost of the telecom development package is estimated to be Rs 610 million. In an­other key move, the Ministry of Defence extended clearance with one-year validity to telecom companies for laying and maintaining undersea ca­bles. Earlier, telecom operators were required to seek clearance every six months for vessels and ships required for laying and maintaining undersea cables.

Reliance Jio too remained active in this space and announced that it will land the next-generation multi-terabit India-Asia-Xpress (IAX) undersea cable system in Hulhumale, Maldives. The high capacity and high speed IAX system will connect Hulhumale directly with the world’s major internet hubs in India and Singapore. Re­cently, in November 2022, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Ch­an­ge approved Reliance Industries Limi­ted’s plan to build submarine cable systems for high capacity and high speed internet connectivity from Mumbai to Europe and Asia. The cable systems, India-Europe-Xpress and IAX, are the largest globally and are expected to be ready between 2023 and 2024.

Renewable all the way

Sustainability in the telecom infrastructure domain was a key theme during the year. To this end, the government notified the Gre­en Open Access Rules, 2022. The rules promote renewable energy through green energy open access for any consu­mer who has a contracted demand/­sanc­tioned load of 100 kW or more except for captive consumers.

Among players in the digital infrastr­ucture space, STL announced its commitment to become a carbon-neutral company by 2030. Under its plan, the company will accelerate its efforts towards net-zero manufacturing and sustainable network build strategies. Further, Bharti Air­tel an­n­ounced the commissioning of a new 21 MW solar power plant in Bhuldana district, Maharashtra. The captive power unit, which is spread over 80 acres, was set up by Airtel in partnership with Avaada to supply clean energy to Nxtra by Airtel’s lar­ge and edge data centres, and switching centres in Maharashtra. Thr­ough this unit, the company expects a significant re­duction of 25,517 tonnes in carbon emissions annually. Nxtra also partne­red with Bloom Energy in 2022 to deploy low environmental impact fuel cells at its data centre in Karnataka, thus reducing ca­r­bon emi­ssions through a cleaner, hy­dro­gen-ready fuel supply.

Kick-starting 2023 and moving ahead

The year 2023 has also kick-started with a number of progressive initiatives aimed at facilitating infrastructure roll-out in the country. For one, DoT has notified the In­dian Telegraph (Infrastructure Safety) Ru­les, 2022, to protect telecom infrastructure from damages. The rules lay out the procedure for exercising the legal right to dig or excavate any property. Further, the Mini­s­try of Defence has released a progressive set of RoW rules for rolling out mobile towers, optical fibre and other telecom infrastructure, that is, the “Policy on Shared Comm­u­nication Tower and Other Telecom Infra­structure to Extend Communication Net­work in Military Stations/Can­ton­me­nts”, which has been long awaited.

On the regulatory front, TRAI has re­leased a consultation paper titled “Tele­com­munication Infrastructure Sharing, Spectrum Sharing, and Spectrum Lea­s­ing” to seek industry views on issues related to infrastructure sharing, and spectrum sharing and leasing.

Among states, the Rajasthan government has released guidelines allowing telecom service providers to install mobile to­wers on buildings without taking permission from any authority.

Collectively, these initiatives indicate that the digital infrastructure sector is poised for rapid growth in the coming ye­a­rs. According to a GSMA report titled “India: On the Road to a Digital Nation”, telcos in India are expected to invest arou­nd $19.5 billion in the development of ad­vanced 5G infrastructure by 2025. This investment, combined with supportive go­v­ernment policies, will play a crucial role in shaping India’s digital future.

Kuhu Singh Abbhi