The uneven terrain in the state of Himachal Pradesh has led to the non-uniform escalation of telecom infrastructure services. However, several connectivity mediums, such as optical fibre, along with telcos’ efforts to scale up services, are helping to develop robust digital infrastructure across the state. At a recent tele.net conference on “OFC Networks in India”, Mukesh Repaswal, director, Department of Science and Technology, Government of Himachal Pradesh, spoke about the level of fiberisation in the state, recent developments and challenges faced. Edited excerpts…
In Himachal Pradesh, where remote areas hamper access to digital infrastructure, telecom has become essential for telemedicine, tele-education, telemarketing and even for entrepreneurs looking for work. This was particularly evident during the Covid-19 pandemic when people relocated to places such as Goa and Manali for commercial breaks. Himachal Pradesh did benefit from this trend but the fiberisation rate in the region is only 30 per cent, which impedes the quality of the network services provided to citizens.
Further, the BharatNet project in Himachal Pradesh covers only 240 gram panchayats (GPs) out of a total of 3,600 GPs. Even though BharatNet was not a huge success in the state, telecom network expenses have been continuously rising, primarily due to the efforts of telecommunication service providers (TSPs). Overall, Himachal Pradesh has been relatively successful in extending telecom services to all sections and areas of the state.
To enhance connectivity, the Department of Telecommunications is currently executing a 4G service project with funding from the Universal Service Obligation. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) is the implementing agency for the project and aims to provide 4G connectivity to all unconnected villages in the state.
The state of Himachal Pradesh faces a multitude of challenges. First, there are geographical issues that other hilly regions encounter as well. Due to the recent continuous rainfall, areas such as Kullu, Kinnaur, parts of Chamba, and Lahaul have witnessed extensive damage and corrosion. This destruction led to the loss of basic services such as water supply, electricity and telecom services, leaving residents without any access for almost a week. Fortunately, satellite phones in these regions provided basic communication in these areas. Hence, developing infrastructure projects in hilly regions remains a major challenge due to topographical complexities.
Second, there are coverage gaps due to the specific terrain of hills, resulting in the existence of shadow zones that are not covered despite the number of installed towers and fibres. Third, the cost of road construction in hilly regions surpasses that of plain areas due to the simpler process of laying fibre in flat areas.
Fourth, environmental considerations are particularly important in Himachal Pradesh because the state is home to the great Himalayan ranges of the country, which are a valuable asset. Any developmental project that requires the cutting of trees imposes a significant environmental toll.
The fifth issue pertains to the extremely narrow roads. The ideal approach would be to lay ducts alongside roads, where basic infrastructure such as electrical lines and telecommunication lines can be placed. However, the lack of space for duct installation poses a significant obstacle, given that the roads are only 3-4 km wide.
Sixth, a key challenge on the commercial side arises from the limited resources of the population. The state is made up of small towns with approximately 100-250 small hamlets. These hamlets are often at distances of 4-5 km from each other. This poses an economic challenge for private TSPs, because the user base is not large enough to support the amount of funding required to offer telecom networks to these regions.
Lastly, the extensive stretches of roads are a matter of concern, such as a 50 km segment with no settlements. Despite being frequently visited by tourists, the entire route lacks connectivity. As there are no inhabitants, setting up towers for telecom services would not be commercially viable.
In sum, there are certain limitations because of the state’s geographical makeup. Further, the state government is reluctant to lower the right of way costs and electricity charges. There are multiple reasons for this, one of which is the unfavourable financial situation of the state. With a high debt-to-GDP ratio of approximately Rs 800,000 million, it is difficult to roll out a policy where the state actively provides incentives to TSPs for their expansion.
Nevertheless, TSPs such as Jio, Airtel and BSNL, have been highly active and forthcoming in terms of their investment in Himachal Pradesh, and their efforts have greatly contributed to the state’s success in terms of telecom infrastructure.