India is witnessing a growing convergence of technology, media and communication. This is opening up several new opportunities across various domains. The government released the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) ,in 2018, which defines three missions – connect, propel and secure India. The policy hails fibre as the utmost important component of future networks.

So far, in India, fibre networks have grown organically. Incumbents have been developing fibre networks for the past 20 years, but hardly 25 per cent of the towers are connected to the fibre. The next generation of technologies such as 4G and 5G would require not just robustness, but also very high speed connectivity, very low latency and obviously huge capacity.

Today, even as we boast of an 85-90 per cent-plus coverage for 4G, the service quality inside a building complex, offices and malls continues to be poor. Soon mobile radios will be installed on top of street lights as much closer to the customer as possible like table lamps for light. This will require fibre connectivity to each of these nodes, and ensuring this will be a big challenge.

RoW requires an overhaul

Right of way (RoW) is a very city-specific issue. Every city has a very different scenario and a specific set of challenges as far as RoW is concerned. The need of the hour is to have clear-cut norms not only for digging but also for restoration. For instance, for BharatNet, Maharashtra has come out with a policy wherein no permission is required as such for laying fibre. The company just needs to go and intimate the concerned authority about its action. This is a step in the right direction and more such aggressive policies need to be formulated. Telangana is another example where they have laid fibre optics, alongside water pipelines.

Policy progress

Fibre roll-out is an essential part of the NDCP, 2018. But one needs to look at what is happening on the ground. There is a huge fibre available with companies such as Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL), RailTel and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited. While these companies are leasing capacities, their utilisation is not enough when compared to telcos that are recording 80-90 per cent utilisation. It is a big revenue opportunity for utilities as telcos are in dire need of fibre. Also, in the past few years, over 400 cities have been given licences for city gas distribution. These entities are laying pipelines, almost at the same places where telcos need fibre. There is a huge opportunity to bring about synergies here to ensure that fibre reaches every home, that too in a cost-effective manner.

Focus on 4G

All said and done, 5G remains a distant reality and no one knows when exactly it will come to India. Right now, we have 4G available and even this can serve a lot of purpose, but it requires huge fibre connectivity. So, the big question at hand is, do we have a universal 4G coverage today? The answer is no. We may have it on roads, but the moment we get into one layer inside, the network becomes patchy. The moot point remains that fibre is an essential part of future networks, which are being powered by 4G today and will be done by 5G tomorrow.

A focused approach

The industry is already moving towards a focused approach, wherein players are hiving off their fibre network in a trust. Jio has done it recently. Even in the case of Airtel, Telesonic was born for this very purpose. A focused company definitely brings in a lot more efficiencies. Now, whether it will be independent and new IP-1s will take up the role of fibrecos is something that the industry will only witness over time. Clearly, for them to emerge as leaders in this space is not going to be easy. These fibrecos will initially evolve out of the current operators and there will be a lot of sharing that will happen amongst them, which will make this model successful.

Sharing will be key

Indeed, fibre sharing will be the name of the game as no telco can make its fibre reach everywhere, especially at the speed that the current market scenario demands.

At present, we have a very good model that has helped in the proliferation of telecom towers in the country. Completely independent companies such as Indus Towers have been driving this. A similar model would have to be explored for fibre network too. Sharing can be facilitated if a separate company is formed.

There is a mention of the National Fibre Authority in NDCP, 2018. That must become a reality soon. This can be an authority dealing with all the public sector fibre spread across entities such as GAIL, regional telcos and Bombay Gas Company in Mumbai, which own fibre in small pockets spread across the country.

Sanjeev Bedekar, Independent Industry Expert and Former CEO, Telesonic Networks