Amit Sharma, executive vice-president and president, Asia

American Tower Corporation (ATC) India has rapidly expanded its footprint in the country through the greenfield development and brownfield acquisition routes. In one of the biggest mergers in the telecom tower industry, ATC India acquired majority stake in Viom Networks in 2015, becoming the second largest independent telecom tower company in India (in terms of tower numbers). With around 58,000 towers in its portfolio, the company is looking at further strengthening its presence in the Indian market. In an interview with, Amit Sharma, executive vice-president and president, Asia, ATC India, talks about the company’s performance post its merger with Viom Networks, his views on the tower industry’s performance during the past year, ATC India’s plans and strategies for the next few years, and his outlook for the sector…

How have the operational metrics chan­ged for ATC India post its merger with Viom Networks? What will be the key focus areas going forward?

Post the majority stake acquisition in Viom Networks, we have a portfolio of around 58,000 towers. At this scale, we are positioned to capture a sizeable market share. Now that we have the most comprehensive independent portfolio of towers in India, we are planning to significantly increase our tower base and tenancies over the next three years. We have an average tenancy of two, which we expect to grow every year. Our greatly expanded portfolio of towers will enable us to play a key role in providing the tower infrastructure essential for the deployment of advan­ced wireless technologies throughout the country and to support the government’s Digital India initiative. We are focused on bringing the best practices from both companies to significantly improve the quality of services/ uptime and customer satisfaction levels.

What were the key growth drivers for the telecom infrastructure industry during 2016?

The year 2016 was power-packed with significant developments such as 4G roll-outs, which jump-started data growth in the country. Meeting the rapidly growing demand for 4G data will require carriers to continue upgrading their networks in 2017-18 and necessitate a significant roll-out of new and infill sites. As per a Deloitte report on the Indian tower industry, the tenancy ratio is expected to reach 2.48 by 2019-20 from 2.08 in 2016-17.

What are your views on the RoW guidelines released by the government?

In principle, the right-of-way (RoW) guidelines are a step in the right direction as they recognise the fact that telecom infrastructure deployment cannot be done in a piecemeal fashion with each municipality imposing its own rules and charges. However, it is crucial that the guidelines clarify that infrastructure providers can roll out towers under these guidelines on behalf of their UASL licensee customers.

What is your regulatory wish list for the upcoming year?

The unprecedented increase in the adoption of digital services like payments, e-governance and entertainment will necessitate further investments in the telecom infrastructure sector. The industry has been given infrastructure status by the government, but none of the tax/financing benefits that come with this status. Hopefully, this will be corrected in the new budget.

How successful has the government been in resolving the radiation concerns of citizens? What steps has the industry taken to address these fears? 

Analysing the impact of any substance on public health requires tremendous expert­ise.  Multilateral bodies like the World Heal­th Organization have the expertise and wherewithal to do this and have been doing so for decades. They have also made extensive long-term studies on matters of cell tower radiation. We do not need to reinvent the wheel in India in this area. The Indian government, after studying a multitude of reports, has categorically stated that mobile towers pose no health hazard to people. We support government initiatives to communicate this message and dispel misconceptions about radiation hazards put out by self-proclaimed experts on radiation issues.

What has been the impact of the launch of 4G services on your business?

The launch of 4G services is creating significant demand for more sites. Typically, carriers first upgrade their existing 2G sites but inevitably they need infill sites for capacity and new sites for coverage, which will drive growth for the tower industry. We anticipate that the continuing roll-out of advanced network technologies by carriers in India will lead to significant incremental demand for ATC’s tower portfolio over a multi-year period.

With the telecom industry heading towards consolidation, what is your outlook for the tower industry?

The long-expected carrier consolidation is finally happening. Our experience globally is that while there may be some short-term churn as merging carriers rationalise their networks, the resulting merger tends to create a stronger, larger, financially better positioned player that will ultimately invest more in its network over the long term. So, from a structural perspective and from a long-term growth perspective, carrier consolidation has historically been a positive for the growth of the telecom infrastructure industry.

What are the key trends in the energy management space? What initiatives has ATC India taken to address the energy management challenge at tower sites?

ATC remains committed to environmental awareness, both internally with our employees and externally with our customers and communities. We provide shared infrastructure to our customers, thereby reducing the burden that single-use communications sites place on our land and natural resources, and minimising the negative visual impact on the communities that we serve. We also strive to reduce energy use and related emissions at our communications sites. A significant percentage of our sites are now diesel-free.

How do you see the Indian telecom market evolving in the coming years? What opportunities are likely to emerge for infrastructure providers in 2017?

With the data explosion, the tower industry will witness huge growth in the deployment of towers and tenancies. Accelerated network investments will drive revenue and tenancy growth for tower companies. Further, the government’s Digital India and Smart Cities vision will fuel the requirement and deployment of telecom infrastructure as it is the backbone for facilitating connectivity.

Besides, with a digital push by the government towards cashless payments, more and more Indians will adopt smartphone-based payment methods. India will also see rapid adoption of the internet, making this market ripe for digital entrepreneurs for years to come. It will lead to a rise in the consumption of on-demand videos on the second screen. Payments bank launches in 2017 are also expected to exacerbate mobile linkages. All of these require more telecom infrastructure and, therefore, will lead to the growth of the tower industry.

How is ATC contributing towards the Digital India initiative?

We have initiated a concept called “Village of the Future”, which is like a digital square. We use the tower site, which has electricity, security and internet backhaul, to do things like installing an ATM at the site. You could put an e-medicine kiosk there to connect doctors in urban hospitals with patients in rural areas. One of the things we are doing is setting up education kiosks. We have 30 such operational sites and want to scale it up to 60. We want to do more but we need to partner with others.

In addition, in partnership with Hole-in-the-Wall Education Limited and NIIT Foundation, we run a programme that provides e-education to children and digital literacy to adults in 50 villages. Called Hole-in-the-Wall, this concept enables children at tower sites and in select schools to access self-learning opp­ortunities. As a part of the community out­­reach programme, the schools are powered by solar energy and have sanitation facilities to provide a cleaner environment. The digital learning centres are aimed at providing a number of facilities including elementary computer literacy, skill development, and basic community benefit services to people. We have many such sites operational in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, and it is our endeavour to run more such sites.