These are very interesting times for the Indian telecom sector. Although there are several key challenges facing the stakeholders, the industry is witnessing a broadband revolution. Technology is playing a key role in driving this transformation. Today, mobile and internet have become a part of our daily life, and the emergence of a digital society is underway.

Meanwhile, the entry of a new operator has shaken up the industry, due to which broadband, and an integrated approach to data and connectivity have become the norm. The challenge for service providers, infrastructure providers and others is to figure out how to fulfil these requirements. The policy framework has to undergo a paradigm change to become data focused from voice-led. The emergence of a digital society calls for a clear-cut thought process on digital infrastructure. The policy framework should provide an integrated view on digital infrastructure, which will serve as the bedrock of the entire growth plan.

The government wants to be at the forefront of the launch of 5G, which is in­ter­twined not only with the aspect of spectrum but also with the roll-out of infrastructure. 5G launch may, in fact, happen faster in India if we have a concomitant commitment towards the roll-out of infrastructure and promote sharing of infrastructure. Sharing helps operators in cost opti­­misation, simultaneously allowing th­em to focus on critical tasks. It can also play an instrumental role in addressing issues related to smart cities, rural connectivity, national highway connectivity, etc. This is an industry where operators and other stake­holders are working towards a common objective of establishing infrastructure to launch and support various services.

The setting up of digital infrastructure is a long-term consideration and has to be tied up with investments. The key concern of investors is the government’s approach towards the sector as a revenue generator in terms of licence fees. They need an as­su­rance from the government that the sector would be seen as growth driver. There is a continuous convergence of services. We need to have a far-reaching view in terms of a policy for digital infrastructure, which is no longer just a question of towers but includes fibre, Wi-Fi, in-building solutions (IBS), distributed antenna systems, cloud connectivity and several other emerging technologies.

Key issues and challenges

There are several issues facing infrastructure providers today. The first of these is the challenges associated with ease-of-doing business. We are not only talking about financial relief but are also equally concerned about how the process of infrastructure roll-out can be facilitated more easily and efficiently. We are looking at a policy impetus from the government for laying basic infrastructure, rather than only seeking financial sops and packages.

In a bid to recognise the requirements of a digital world, it is imperative to redefine “digital infrastructure”. At present, the definition of infrastructure involves what we call passive infrastructure, which basically is laying infrastructure for operators. The infrastructure required for a data-led environment cannot be the same as the infrastructure, which is required for voice. Thus, the definition of infrastructure has to be revisited and redefined in the light of data-led growth, keeping in mind the evolution of the industry. Since most of the data is generated within buildings rather than on streets, we need IBS, distributed antenna systems, fibre-based connectivity and Wi-Fi solutions.  There­fore, we need to define digital infrastructure and how can it be facilitated in terms of a policy framework.

We as an industry believe that we must be granted permissions and approvals on priority. The industry is also looking at using government land for tower installation. Fortunately, we have received significant government support on this, but it is still work in progress.

Securing right of way (RoW) has been the biggest hurdle for towercos and other industry stakeholders, when rolling out infrastructure in the country. In Novem­ber 2016, the government notified its RoW rules for easing out many such challenges. However, digital infrastructure providers, who account for 80-90 per cent of the in­frastructure roll-out, have not been included. Only operators’ role in roll­ing out infrastructure has been recognised. Th­ere continues to be confusion bet­ween licensing and registration, however, there is no difference between the two on ground. While the terms and conditions under the two may differ, the government grants the rights to an external party in both instances – be it an operator or a digital infrastructure provider – to carry out the roll-out. Thus, whether they are called registrants or licensees should not matter. While the Telegraph Act of 1885 is now outdated by several means, it is still far reaching in some sense that wherever the government sees it can drive efficiency, it has the absolute right to define it accordingly. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has put forth clear recommendations on what role infrastructure providers can play in terms of data-led growth. It is pertinent that RoW rules should include infrastructure providers.

Interestingly, whatever be the larger policy mandate, ultimately it has to be implemented on ground. While the central gazette should be automatically appli­cable in all states, the on-ground reality is far from it. The state governments and other local municipal and urban bodies have a big role to play in the successful on-ground implementation of these policies. Currently, several municipal corporations have come up with their own policies. As far as the technical and design as­pects of RoW are concerned, many urban local bodies and municipal corporations fall in line with the centre’s notified rules; but when it comes to commercial aspects, there is a strong disconnect. This difference of opinion between the states and the centre, and between state authorities and infrastructure providers often results in delayed roll-out.

Municipalities often look at RoW as an opportunity to earn extra revenue; whereas infrastructure providers, including towercos, look at easily available RoW as a means to achieve accelerated roll-out. We as an industry believe that we must be granted permissions and approvals on priority. The second thing which the industry is looking at is using government land for tower installation. Fortunately, we have received significant government support on this, but it is still work in progress. The government must play a key role and work together with local bodies for the effective implementation of RoW.

Some states have implemented the ROW regulations on their own terms. There has been some success in states like Haryana and Maharashtra, which has been possible primarily because of the thrust provided by the state governments. By launching Digital Haryana or Digital Andhra Pradesh, states are trying to position themselves as key contributors to the central government’s Digital India movement. There exists significant scope in terms of IT and technology convergence to ensure the standardisation of RoW norms across states. This will result in real and effective implementation of RoW rules at the municipal level too.

Policy expectations

In addition to other initiatives, one that is definitely needed to give due leverage and importance to the deployment of digital infrastructure is according essential infrastructure sector status to the industry. This will ensure that the security provided to telecom infrastructure is at par with that provided to infrastructure of other sectors, which have been accorded the essential status.

Going forward, the government should adopt a holistic approach to address the licensing needs of the sector, similar to the goods and service tax which was implemented for taxation in the country.

In terms of a wish list, the government should release more actionable documents rather than only outlining broad visions. Vision is important but it has to be ultimately converted into an objective action plan.

In sum

The establishment of a digitalised society requires digital infrastructure, which can only be set up through a clear-cut and integrated thought process. Also, there is an urgent need to redefine the meaning of digital infrastructure in the current era of data-led growth. Finally, for the new telecom policy to be relevant, it should provide a well-articulated action plan for the industry. It should aim at establishing a single-window clearance mechanism to facilitate faster implementation of infrastructure and address licensing issues. This is what the sector is hoping for and looking forward to.

Based on an address by Umang Das, Special Advisor, ATC India and Vice-Chairman TAIPA