India has been lagging behind other countries in fixed line broadband penetration. One of the key reasons for this is the challenges in rolling out fibre infrastructure, which has been a Herculean task for service providers. Besides terrestrial challenges, the issues related to securing right of way (RoW) has plagued the sector in a big way, in turn inhibiting the growth of fibre connectivity over the years. RoW has largely remained a central subject with each state government and several local bodies subjecting infrastructure providers to a varied set of rules and charges. Challenges such as tedious application and approval processes and exorbitant administrative charges discourage service providers from undertaking large-scale fibre roll-outs.

In order to resolve these issues, the government, in November 2016, issued the Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules to facilitate the installation of mobile towers, optic fibre and copper cables in a time-bound and non-discretionary manner. With an aim to simplify the way RoW permissions are granted, the rules lay down a framework to streamline the process of approvals, ensure a uniform adoption of the RoW Rules across all the states, and improve the coordination between telecom companies and government authorities. It focuses on the adoption of an electronic application process for single-window clearance by all state government authorities.

Other salient features include no restriction on the location of tower, deemed permission within 60 days, nominal one-time administrative fee (OFC – Rs 1,000 per km, and towers Rs 10,000 per tower), grievance redressal through telecom committees at the state and district levels and the designation of a nodal officer for grant of RoW permissions.

While these rules were expected to be a game changer for the telecom infrastructure sector, their on-the-ground implementation at the state level has been tardy. Most states neither have a comprehensive RoW framework in place nor adhere to the central government norms. According to the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association (TAIPA), 20 states have so far approved or notified their RoW policies, which are largely aligned with the DoT RoW Rules, 2016. However, some of the big states such as Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Punjab are yet to align their telecom infrastructure policies with the central government rules. Further, the states that have aligned their policies with the central government rules face serious implementation issues.

The one-time administration charges being levied by several states continue to be much higher than those prescribed by the RoW Rules, 2016. According to T.R. Dua, director general, TAIPA, “The local authorities in many states continue to levy hefty permission fee for granting permissions for installation of mobile towers and RoW for laying fibre. The fee is as high as Rs 500,000 per annum. This is in direct contravention of the RoW Rules, which mandate levy of one-time charge of Rs 10,000 per tower and Rs 1,000 per km for laying fibre.”

Clearly, the rules have not been able to bring about a transformational change in infrastructure roll-out as was envisaged at the time of their notification four years ago. According to Umang Das, chairman, Foreign Investors India Forum, the RoW Rules, 2016 have not been effectively implemented so far. The key reason behind this is lack of effective and speedy monitoring and collaboration between the centre and states and thereafter between the states and local governments/municipalities.

States need to understand the importance of the telecom sector and support the implementation of RoW/tower rules. The adoption of RoW Rules across all states, in a consistent manner, is crucial for the success of Digital India vision.

In September 2020, the GSM Association (GSMA) wrote to the secretary of DoT, highlighting multiple challenges on the ground in rolling out infrastructure. According to the association, such obstacles directly affect ease of doing business, while adding substantial costs and time overruns to service providers. The GSMA also submitted its findings to the government in order to address the existing RoW challenges. It has sought replacement of various RoW charges with a single one-time charge to recover the direct cost of restoration and reinstatement.

The fundamental shift that is needed to ease the RoW process is to make the states and the local bodies realise that laying OFC and providing access to telecom infrastructure – both of which will form the backbone of digitalisation – will ultimately bring numerous benefits to the states. Therefore, the RoW grant process should not be looked at as a source of income/revenue but as something to be supported so that a larger population can enjoy access to high quality telecom connectivity.