U.K. Srivastava, principal adviser, TRAI

The National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 lays significant stress on the role of infrastructure providers. It states that the scope of IP-1 registration holders (IP-1s) should be enhanced to encourage and facilitate the creation of common shareable active infrastructure. In view of this, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) came out with a consultation paper in September 2019, seeking stakeholders’ views on how to enhance the role of IP-1s. In March 2020, the regulator released its recommendations on the subject. In a recent webinar and interaction with tele.net, U.K. Srivastava, principal adviser, TRAI, shared his views on the recommendations and their relevance for various stakeholders. Excerpts…

Please provide a brief overview of the recommendations.

TRAI recommends that “the expanded scope of the IP-1 registration should include to own, establish, maintain and work all infrastructure items, equipment and systems that are required for establishing a wireline access network, radio access network (RAN) and transmission links. However, it will not include core network elements such as Switch, MSC, HLR and IN. The scope of the IP-1 registration should include, but not be limited to, right of way (RoW), duct space, optical fibre, tower, feeder cable, antenna, base station, in-building solutions (IBS), distributed antenna systems, etc. within any part of India.”

We had already given a detailed recommendation on IBS to the government in 2017, stating that infrastructure providers should be permitted to install IBS equipment. Further, it should be left to telecom service providers (TSPs) to decide whether they are interested in sharing this equipment or not. They would certainly be interested as someone else will make the investment, install the equipment and provide the facility to them. It will save them time as well as costs.

The debate has always been around whether IP-1 should be a licence or a registration. There has been a view that since IP-1 is not a licence, infrastructure providers do not pay any licence fee to the government. However, we believe that enhancing their scope will result in higher investments and creation of shareable non-discriminatory infrastructure which will eventually result in overall gain in revenue to the government.

We have tried to address this issue in our recommendations, and asked DoT to allow IP-1s to create and share active infrastructure, but with certain limitations. One, they are not allowed to acquire spectrum. An IP-1 can install equipment in a given spectrum band, but the spectrum will belong to the TSP. Two, the IP-1 will not be allowed to reach the end user directly and provide connectivity. This is to ensure that IP-1s do not replace TSPs.

Do these recommendations permit sharing of infrastructure with cable service and broadcasting players?

As per the recommendation, the infrastructure provider can share infrastructure and create infrastructure for any entity that has been permitted by the Government of India for setting up telecom including broadcasting.

As per recommendations, wireless spectrum will not be allocated to IP-1s. Is this applicable to backhaul spectrum as well?

We have permitted only RAN sharing as of now, and of course microwave links.

Does the active fixed line infrastructure for FTTH inside buildings come within the enhanced scope of IP-1s?

Yes. We consider active infrastructure for IBS under the broader IBS category. It also includes the passive optic network. If service providers are ready to share, they can.

Is there any mandatory guideline on fibre sharing between operators?

It is not mandatory.

What is your appraisal of fibre implementation under BharatNet and what needs to be changed if fibre reach to the unserved areas has to be accelerated?

As per TRAI recommendation, higher private participation is required. The project should be mostly led by the private sector with viable gap funding from the Universal Service Obligation Fund.

Are there any recommendations or guidelines pertaining to the consumption of fuel by infrastructure providers?

There was a very detailed consultation by TRAI back in 2011 and the recommendations came out in April 2011, in which matters such as fuel consumption were highlighted. Post that, TSPs started reporting their total fuel consumption and carbon footprint to TRAI. But in late 2016/early 2017, another recommendation was released, which allowed relaxations to the earlier recommendations as TSPs were facing several challenges in meeting the requirements originally listed out for them. Currently, the TSPs are required to submit their carbon footprint to DoT. That said, TSPs on their part must reduce the consumption of diesel in order to save costs.

Will the growing focus on FTTH impact the 5G business case in India?

Not to my understanding.

Are there any security-related issues that have been raised as part of IP-1 scope enhancement?

IP-1s will be bound by all those conditionalities that the TSP follows because the IP-1s are supplementing the efforts of the TSP and will be maintaining the active equipment. So the infrastructure provider will have to ensure that all requirements related to security, etc. are duly met.

What is your view on the unbundling of services and licences? Do you feel that they both go hand in hand? When do you think TRAI will come up with recommendations on the subject?

We earlier came out with a pre-consultation paper to explore the idea/concept that whether this can be implemented and all service providers replied in the negative. So now we are trying to research on international best practices in this regard and have made much headway. We will certainly come out with a consultation paper soon, citing examples from different countries and look for comments from all industry stakeholders on the same.

Can data centre providers take information from IP-1s under the enhanced scope?

At present, there is some activity going on with regard to the registration of data centres. Once that is completed, these recommendations will automatically become applicable to data centres, but only in terms of providing infrastructure, not running the service. The service will be run by the TSP.

Will TRAI like to take a bigger role in dispelling the myths regarding the health impact of EMF radiation?

We are already actively involved in this. We conduct almost 200 consumer awareness programmes all over the country annually, and cover EMF under those.

How long will 2G continue in the Indian telecom market?

This is a call that service providers will have to take. We are not a very rich and small country like Singapore and thus shutting down the 2G network will not be an easy decision. For now, Bharti Airtel has given us some indication with regard to the closure of 3G services as they are converting the sites to 4G. In the end, it is for the service provider to realise where the demand is.

Most of the broadband service providers are not keeping their commitments on bandwidth and data provisioning. Still a payment penalty has not been imposed on them. What are your views in this regard?

We are at a nascent stage as far as fixed line broadband connectivity is concerned and with time we will have stricter regulations for most of these providers. It is important to understand that many local cable operators, which use cable to provide TV connections, are now taking up ISP licences and trying to provide broadband connectivity. So, this is an emerging space and going forward, we will certainly come out with regulations and start testing/evaluating the networks against them.

What are the key emerging trends and requirements for the sector?

First, fiberisation must be a key focus area for the industry. RAN alone cannot take care of all the connectivity needs. Even a 5G base transceiver station needs to supported through a fiberised backhaul. Second, fixed line penetration must go up. We should aim at connecting every home with optical fibre to avoid being a laggard in terms of download speeds world over. Thus, investment in last-mile fixed broadband connectivity is crucial. Third, more focus is required towards large-scale deployment of data centres and cloud infrastructure across the country.

How has TRAI’s mission or scope of work evolved and how do you see it evolving over the next few years?

As long as the telecom sector is there, a regulator will be required. I believe we have to work more on the quality of service aspect. Further, as and when the new technologies will be developed and commercialised, our role will be to provide relevant regulations and recommendations to the government for managing those technologies and services.