The telecom infrastructure segment in India has been fraught with difficulties. The key among them is right of way (RoW) in infrastructure roll-out. The Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules were announced in 2016 with the aim to implement uniform RoW rules across all states and streamline the process of obtaining RoW approvals. One of the salient points of the rules is the adoption of an electronic application process and a single-window clearance mechanism by all state government authorities. However, the implementation of these rules at the state level continues to languish. Delays in infrastructure roll-out are impacting the progress of initiatives such as Digital India and the Smart Cities Mission.

As a step forward, the government has reiterated its focus on telecom infrastructure in the recently released National Digital Communications Policy, 2018. The policy includes forward-looking measures such as the Fibre First initiative, fiberisation of at least 60 per cent of telecom towers by 2020, incentives and exemptions for the construction of telecom towers and accelerated RoW permissions. In addition, it increases the role of infrastructure providers, and rationalises taxes and levies.

RoW policy update

Only 13 states have notified policies aligned with the RoW Rules, 2016. Another 13 states have RoW policies under discussion. There are still 10 states that lack a uniform RoW policy.

Some of the common features of aligned state RoW policies are a single-window clearance mechanism, a one-time fee for telecom infrastructure installation, time-bound clearances with deemed approvals, documentations aligned with DoT guidelines, validity of permissions made coterminus with the licence/registration period, and the availability of government land and buildings.

Even though these policies have been notified, ensuring timely and hassle-free implementation is still an issue. State support is needed to expedite implementation at the ground level. States such as Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Odisha have issued directives to all their state departments for expeditious implementation of the notified policies.

Apart from this, the majority of the Indian states have more than one policy for the installation of telecom towers, and companies are often required to obtain approvals from several entities. The lack of uniformity in fee is another major setback. There are annual or renewal charges as well as sharing charges in some cases. Other taxes and levies such as development charges and property tax are also imposed by states.

The non-availability of government land and buildings is a challenge in the installation of towers. The deployment of new telecom sites is also hindered by the prevailing concerns related to electromagnetic field radiations. Companies are restricted from installing towers in schools, colleges, hospitals and residential areas.

States as a key stakeholder

In order to fast-track the implementation of RoW policies, it is imperative that the states extend their support. To begin with, all states should align with the RoW Rules, 2016. A high-level nodal officer should be appointed to ensure down-the-line implementation of state policies. Restrictions should not be imposed on the installation of mobile towers in certain locations. Government land and buildings should be made easily available for the installation of mobile towers. The sector should be provided electricity connections on a priority basis and at industrial tariffs.

In order to ensure the security of telecom infrastructure, strict penal norms should be incorporated in state telecom policies. Coercive action by the state government against telecom infrastructure, without prior approval from the state nodal authority and intimation to the effective party, should be discouraged.

There is a critical need for a common duct policy. Cities of the future will be built on a fibre network for enabling ubiquitous and seamless connectivity. Therefore, a common duct will play an important role in the laying of fibre. The “Dig Once” policy envisions laying a common duct, which can be used by all stakeholders to lay fibre for the provision of broadband/cable services. This would not only save time, but also reduce cost and effort.

The way forward

Going forward, it is imperative that more states align with the RoW Rules, 2016, in order to streamline the RoW process. Moreover, states will need to take measures to ensure effective implementation. Most importantly, local and municipal bodies need to rethink their approval process for telecom infrastructure roll-out. s

Based on a presentation by T.R. Dua, Director General, Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association (TAIPA)