T.R. Dua, Director General, TAIPA

The Covid-19 pandemic crisis is one of the toughest challenges faced by the mankind. It has affected almost the entire world and has led to severe socio-economic disruption with many countries declaring lock down. On March 23, 2020  India ordered a nationwide lockdown in order to prevent the community spread. The telecom sector being pivotal to various other services and applications, was rightly exempted from lockdown. During the lockdown period, several organisations have shifted to work for home, virtual meetings and video calls etc. The uptake of e- services, OTT platforms, e- commerce and e-governance has increased significantly. Therefore, the importance of telecom services has grown manifold and has necessitated the continuity of telecom network.

The telecom infrastructure acts as the backbone to enable telecom services and thus, the role of telecom infrastructure providers (IPs) become more critical during such unprecedented crisis. Apart from the challenges such as movement restrictions for accessing the telecom sites, the increased data consumption has also made the operations and maintenance of telecom network more complex.

Telecom to the rescue

All telecom sites pan India (around 592,000) are being monitored by IPs every hour and the rescue teams working on ground 24*7 to keep all sites up and running despite the hurdles/hiccups faced if any. IPs have made temporary food and stay arrangements at their data centers, called as war rooms and have made vehicles available to facilitate movement of technical staff to the sites. All the rural areas especially in Northeast where the issues of non-availability of continuous EB supply, road conditions, hilly terrains are affecting the connectivity, the IPs, despite these constraints, continue to maintain the connectivity and coverage with support of local government authorities.

TAIPA’s role

In order to ensure telecom connectivity on 24X7 basis, a comprehensive pandemic response program was followed by TAIPA. As an Infrastructure provider association, TAIPA had taken up proactive steps ever since the WHO declared the COVID-19 as a pandemic. In order to streamline the operations during lock down situation at each state, TAIPA formed a task force all four regions – north, east, west and south. The initial task was to follow up with state level authorities and enforcement agencies for issuance of down the line circulars in order to exempt telecom services from lock down. The regional teams of TAIPA coordinated with state governments, and enforcement agencies to get the exemption orders and passes issued to IP/TSP members. Further, the matter of shortage of storage battery supplies, required as a back up to EB at the telecom sites was also raised with the central government with a request to exempt the battery manufacturers from the lock down orders. In a bid to avoid chocking of networks, the state governments were also requested for de sealing of the sites in order to cope up with increased data demand. Meanwhile, a virtual war room was set up where key team members to participate through conference calls and video conference.

Pro- active support extended by DoT & state governments

The continuity of telecom services was only made possible due to excellent support provided by DoT and state governments. DoT had issued various circulars to all the state chief secretaries to ensure movement of telecom personnel, diesel supply and grid power on priority. Many state / UTs including Delhi, Haryana and UP supported in de-sealing of various sites to provide better connectivity. Further, nodal officers were appointed by the states basis the advisory of DoT, which makes the telecom representatives’ workload easier. Special waivers have been provided by many states such as no late penalties on delays in electricity bill payments, priority electricity connections to telecom infrastructure, special permissions provided to install cell on wheels (CoWs), etc. The support extended by enforcement agencies, state disaster management cells and nodal officers has been highly appreciated.

Meanwhile, DoT and the state governments are also working on select key issues in order to further streamline the telecom operations. These include continued movement of goods, services and spares; enhancement of scope of IP-Is to include sharing of active elements such as antenna, feeder cable, fibre, RAN etc.; establishing a process to open warehouses with skeletal staff to support telecom sector requirements; directives to state authorities to expedite the process for uniform state telecom infrastructure policy formulation/alignment; and directives to expedite the old pending permissions for installation of telecom towers.

Way forward

The unprecedented crisis requires extensive coordination, co -operation and support amongst telecom infrastructure providers, local authorities, state authorities, enforcement agencies and central government. The good work done must continue.