Umang Das, Chairman, Foreign Investors India Forum

The acceleration of digital infrastructure was a key theme of the Indian telecom industry in 2020. Infrastructure providers showed resilience by rolling out networks to support unprecedented data demand. Umang Das, Chairman, Foreign Investors India Forum, shares his views on the acceleration of digital infrastructure, emerging opportunities and the challenges facing infrastructure roll-out…

How would you describe the past one year for the digital infrastructure industry?

While the outbreak of the pandemic was an extremely tragic development worldwide, the spotlight that it has put on the importance of digital infrastructure cannot be overemphasised. In the past 12 months, the pandemic has altered India’s digital landscape in a way that we have been striving to accomplish for many years.

What are some of the key trends that will continue in the post-Covid world?

People have realised the importance and benefits of the digital way of life, and I believe this transformation is permanent. The demand for broadband will continue to see an uptick even after the pandemic is over. For telecom players, it will be imperative to roll out robust broadband networks and digital infrastructure that supports high speeds and superior service quality. Fibre-based connectivity, whether for backhaul or in the last mile, will emerge as the strongest pillar for broadband delivery. The success of wireless can be replicated in the fibre space by leveraging partnerships with foreign tech and infrastructure players.

Focus on in-building connectivity is another key trend that will continue to be in the spotlight even in the post-Covid world. The massive shift to a work-from-home/ anywhere model has emphasised the significance of strong indoor connectivity.

What are the key issues that continue to plague the sector?

First and foremost is the delay in the implementation of well-meaning policies, which have often been rendered ineffective due to inordinate delays and lack of effective monitoring and control. For example, the Right of Way (RoW) Rules, 2016 have not been effectively implemented so far, simply because the DoT did not constitute a focused task force to ensure time-bound execution. Hence, what was an excellent and game-changing rule has not come to fruition due to the lack of effective and speedy monitoring and collaboration between the centre and states and thereafter between the states and local governments/municipalities. Further, the implementation of the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 has been rather disappointing. It was conceived as a far-reaching policy, and spelled out the digital transformation programme for the country. Amongst its many noteworthy pointers, one was to expand the scope of IP-1s to take up deployment and sharing of active infrastructure. TRAI gave its recommendations in this regard in March 2020, and we are awaiting a nod from DoT.

Unlike the mobile revolution, which was achieved with the help of a single technology, broadband proliferation would require a heterogeneous mix of technologies including wireline, wireless, cable and satcom. This is because we are a country with deep rural and remote areas, and challenging geographical terrain. In some pockets in urban areas, where fibre deployment is either unviable or technically not feasible, a cost-effective way could be satcom deployment. Satcom can not only be a suitable alternative to overcome RoW challenges in the short term but an also help bridge the digital divide. The PM-WANI public Wi-Fi policy recently approved by the union cabinet is also an excellent initiative for delivering quality broadband to citizens at affordable rates. The policy needs to be implemented in a focused and rapid manner. Another area that needs focus is the opening up of the E and V spectrum bands along the lines of the existing TRAI recommendations and the opening up of new unlicensed spectrum bands, namely 6 GHz.

How do you see the role of towercos evolving to tap new growth and revenue opportunities?

Towercos have played a key role in India’s mobile revolution. But going forward, with the emergence of digital infrastructure, networks will become hybrid in nature, comprising multiple components such as fibre, in-building solutions, small cells, etc. The description of towercos would thus have to change accordingly, and they must evolve into network companies (netcos) to support the infrastructure requirements of the operator companies – from core to transmission, backhaul to frontend. Further, sharing of the infrastructure developed by the netcos will be paramount for accelerated roll-out of digital infrastructure, as well as to avoid duplication or underutilisation of assets. Going forward, the industry must also focus on the building of common telecom infrastructure by neutral host providers. This infrastructure can be a combination of fibre and wireless, but must be shared across multiple agencies and service providers. I believe that digitalisation will democratise the industry and collaboration amongst various stakeholders will be the key to success.