The issue of enhancing the scope of infrastructure providers (IP-Is) to include provisioning of common shareable active infrastructure has been a largely debated one in the Indian telecom industry. While several stakeholders, including IP-Is, were in favour of enhancing the scope of IP-I registration, most of the licensed telecom service providers (TSPs) were opposed to the enhancement of scope without the application of a licence fee. In a bid to address this issue, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) issued a consultation paper on “Review of Scope of Infrastructure Providers Category-I Registration” in August 2019. To discuss this issue in detail, TRAI invited stakeholders’ comments and conducted an open house discussion. Based on stakeholders’ written submissions, issues discussed in the open house and its own analysis, TRAI has now released its recommendations on enhancing the scope of IP-Is. A look at the need for enhancing the scope of IP-Is and TRAI’s key recommendations in this regard…

Current scenario

At present, active infrastructure sharing has been permitted amongst TSPs only. This is limited to sharing of antennas, feeder cables, Node B, radio access network (RAN) and transmission system. IP-Is can also install all these active elements but only on behalf of TSPs. However, sharing of active infrastructure among TSPs has not been very effective. As TSPs operating in the same geographical area and providing similar telecom services are competitors as well, some TSPs are not willing to share their resources with competitors, if it leads to a competitive disadvantage. Therefore, mutual agreements do not fructify. Alternatively, TSPs are reportedly more comfortable in leasing telecom infrastructure from a non-competing entity such as an IP-I. This has dual benefits of enabling TSPs to concentrate on their core competency of providing telecom services and allowing IP-Is to invest and create an active as well as a passive telecom infrastructure.

At the global level, the conventional wisdom is that infrastructure, both active and passive, needs to be shared to ensure better spectral efficiency, better quality of service (QoS) delivery and reduced capital expenditures. Global telecom stakeholders have been vouching for policy initiatives that incentivise and promote infrastructure sharing. In this regard, India’s National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 envisages enhancing the scope of infrastructure providers to enable universal broadband access.

Key benefits

Infrastructure sharing tends to impact coverage, QoS and pricing of services to consumers. It may lead to efficient and positive outcomes such as:

  • Decrease in the duplication of investment, which tends to reduce costs for operators and prices for consumers.
  • Reduction in the cost of providing services to underserved areas.
  • Improvement in QoS delivery due to increase in network coverage and capacity.
  • Enabling operators to compete on service innovation and technology rather than solely on coverage.
  • Benefitting consumers by increasing the choice of providers as entry and expansion becomes easier and speedier through network sharing.

Summary of recommendations

  • The scope of IP-Is’ registration should be expanded to satisfy the present need for telegraph in the country.
  • Any service provider who has a valid authorisation from the government to establish, maintain and work to deliver telecommunication services, within any part of the country, shall only be eligible to obtain such a telegraph infrastructure on lease/rent/purchase basis from IP-I registration holders.
  • The expanded scope of IP-I registration should include owning, establishing, maintaining and working with all such infrastructure items, equipment and systems which are required for establishing wireline access network (WAN), RAN and transmission links. However, it should not include core network elements such as switch, MSC, HLR and IN. Further, the scope of the IP-I registration should include right of way, duct space, optical fibre, tower, feeder cable, antenna, base station, in-building solution, and distributed antenna system. within any part of India.
  • The IP-I registration holder should be authorised to provide only such infrastructure items, equipment and systems on lease/rent/sale basis to an eligible service provider for which that service provider has the government’s authorisation. Further, such infrastructure items, equipment and systems should be provided on mutually agreed terms and conditions to eligible service providers in a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory manner.
  • The expanded scope of IP-I registration should not include providing access to infrastructure items, equipment and systems, provisioning of end-to-end bandwidth using transmission systems and use of the licensed spectrum assigned to an eligible service provider to any customer other than the eligible service providers.
  • The IP-I registration holder should be eligible to apply for a licence under the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 to possess 42 such wireless telegraphy apparatus that are permitted under the scope of IP-I registration. However, the IP-I registration holder should not be eligible to apply for any kind of licensed spectrum.
  • The IP-I registration holder should be permitted to own, establish, maintain and work with infrastructure items, equipment and systems so permitted under its scope, using any technology as per the prescribed standards. It should utilise equipment and products that meet the Telecommunication Engineering Centre (TEC) standards, wherever made mandatory by the licensor from time to time.
  • In the absence of mandatory TEC standards, the IP-I registration holder should be permitted to utilise only those equipment and products that meet the relevant standards set by international standardisation bodies, such as the ITU, European Telecommunications Standards Institute, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the International Standards Organisation and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), or set by international fora, such as 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), 3GPP-2, the Internet Engineering Task Force, Metro Ethernet Forum, Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, Wi-Fi, internet protocol television and IPv6 as recognised by the TEC and subject to modifications/adaptation, if any, as may be prescribed by TEC/ licensor from time to time.
  • Moreover, it should be bound by the terms and conditions of IP-I registration as well as instructions issued by the licensor and by such orders/directions/ regulations of the TRAI issued as per the provisions of the TRAI Act, 1997, as amended from time to time.
  • Additionally, it should comply with norms stipulated in the unified licence under the heads of electromagnetic field exposure by base transceiver stations, sharing of infrastructure, confidentiality of information, and security conditions, wherever applicable as per the scope of the IP-I registration, with the necessary adaptations and modifications.

Need for infrastructure sharing

Currently, the growth of data consumption in India is primarily driven by mobile networks. However, this growth has limitations like spectrum availability constraints and non-availability of optical fibre in access backhaul networks due to which base stations work on microwave backhaul transmission links that have capacity limitations.

As the Indian telecom market steps into the 5G era, the use of higher frequency bands and deployment of small cells will become the new norm. This will result in the evolution of integrated networks called HetNet (heterogeneous network) consisting of macro cells, micro/ small cells and Wi-Fi access points. However, fiberisation of these integrated networks by each TSP in the non-sharing mode would be quite costly and a time-consuming process.

In this scenario, sharing of active infrastructure seems to be the ideal solution, especially when technological advancements have made it possible to share antennas, feeder cables, base-band unit and transmission systems by multiple mobile service providers while still using their own assigned spectrum.

The QoS and other operating parameters can also be maintained separately by each mobile service provider. Additionally, the sharing of access networks could facilitate provisioning of telecom services at affordable prices in some remote and less accessible areas.

Moreover, sharing of active infrastructure could play a big role in scaling up the abysmally low penetration of wireline broadband services in the country. A simple perusal of the performance indicators published by TRAI indicates that the primary focus of the TSPs operating in India is on wireless access services. This trend could be attributed, in part, to higher efforts required for provisioning and maintenance of wireline access services. In this regard, the availability of shared WAN in a non-discriminatory manner may encourage local entrepreneurs to start provisioning wireline broadband services in their area of operations and help improve India’s wireline broadband penetration.

By Kuhu Singh Abbhi