K. Rajaraman, chairman, Digital Communications Commission and Secretary (T), DoT

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has been playing an instrumental role in providing a much-needed push to the telecom sector. In an interview with tele.net, K. Rajaraman, chairman, Digital Communications Commission and Secretary (T), DoT, shares his views on India’s evolving telecom landscape, the industry’s 5G readiness, key government initiatives, and the future outlook for the sector…

How has the telecom landscape evolved during 2021? What have been the key drivers of change during this period?

The telecom sector is the bedrock of India’s Digital Economy and for the creation of opportunities from broadband conn­ectivity for the public. Keeping in mind the importance of the sector, the government announced telecom reforms in September 2021 to address certain stru­ctural issues causing stress in the telecom sector. These reforms have infused fresh vigour into the sector. Key decisions on rationalisation of adjusted gross revenue, abolition of spectrum usage charges for future spectrum auctions, 100 per cent foreign direct investment under the automatic route, and abolition of import licences for licensees have contributed to a strong revival and significant increase in foreign investment inflows. The results of these reforms have been felt immediately, and more impacts are likely to be felt over the long term.

Facilitation of technology development and domestic manufacturing are twin strategies that DoT has used to promote India in the global value chain. The production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme for telecom and networking products was launched and 31 companies comprising 16 micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) have been approved in October 2021. These partner companies have so far invested Rs 3 billion, generated sales of Rs 70 billion and new employment for over 4,000 persons.

C-DOT has developed a 4G core, whose testing is at the final stages, jointly with RAN and other elements from TCS, making possible an Indian 4G stack. Under the 5G test bed funded by DoT, comprising eight institutions including IIT-Madras, IIT-Kanpur, IIT-Hyderabad, IISC Bengaluru, IIT-Bombay and SAMEER, the development of a 5G stack is complete and can be used by the local industry and startups.

The Technology Innovation Group on 6G, task forces on Advanced Optical Communications, M2M and Quantum Communications have been set up to bring in expertise from both academia and industry, setting the stage for driving technology engagement in next-generation technologies.

DoT has recently approved a service authorisation for M2M as part of the unified licence for virtual network operators. This is expected to create the next wave of businesses that will spawn the proliferation of internet of things (IoT)-led automation and productivity, adding thrust to the honourable prime minister’s vision of Gati Shakti. IoT-based applications in vehicles, industry, logistics, etc. will create better business models and new jobs. 5G is expected to accelerate and enable critical and massive IoT applications.

How has the role of the telecom sector changed with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic?

The role of telecom and support from telecom service providers were very well appreciated during the pandemic and after the unlocking. The telecom services’ industry fearlessly ensured that services remain uninterrupted. Despite the onset of the pandemic in 2020 and the second wave in 2021, India’s sound telecom infrastructure enabled effective working of the services sector, government functions and hundreds of millions of employees working from home or children learning online or patients consulting doctors online, keeping the wheels of our economy turning smoothly.

This ever-increasing mobile and broadband connectivity along with the government’s Digital India push has opened the doors to innovation in the education, and social and healthcare sectors, including Covid management. The pandemic saw digital innovations leveraged to create solutions at scale, such as the CoWIN platform and the Arogya Setu app, which, along with broadband connectivity, helped facilitate vaccine delivery to 1 billion people in the country.

C-DoT’s COVID-Saavdhan and Quarantine monitoring systems greatly contributed to the protection and dissemination of mitigation measures. Digital innovations riding on BharatNet and mobile networks could prove to be a game changer for healthcare delivery and school education in India.

What is your view on the industry’s readiness to support 5G services? What steps has DoT taken to accelerate the development of the 5G ecosystem in India?

The industry is gearing up to launch 5G services in 2022. Sufficient spectrum has been identified in different bands in consultation with stakeholders to effectively exploit 5G capabilities. A comprehensive reference was sent to the Telecom Regu­latory Authority of India (TRAI) on September 13, 2021, and its recommendations are expected in March 2022.

DoT has also mapped the ongoing 5G technology and use-case development activities in the country and is enabling continuous collaboration among the stake­­holders. An inter-ministerial committee is actively working with several mini­stries, including agriculture, urban deve­lopment and power, on developing and testing use cases.

DoT’s 5G Hackathon has triggered the use-case development ecosystem to reap the benefits of 5G technologies and en­abled close working with service providers. DoT received a total of 1,024 applications from students, individuals, startups­/MSMEs and working professionals at the initial stage of the scheme. It announced 100 winners of Phase I in January 2021 and awarded them Rs 100,000 each. These 100 winners were provided mentorship by academia, industry, telecom service providers and the government for development of 5G use-cases relevant for India. Now, DoT has selected 30 top applicants in Phase II of the Hackathon.

5G technology trials have begun in the country, giving an opportunity to telecom service providers to assess network dimensioning, enabling them to make roll-out plans. 5G trials are also exploring the integration of Indian 5G use cases and even indigenous 5G products. Small cell dep­loyment is going to be a key area in the densification of 5G networks. DoT is working with stakeholders and state agencies for right-of-way (RoW) facilitation in accessing street furniture.

5Gi, one of the global 5G standards approved by the ITU, is the first Indian contribution to global 5G standards, enabling enhanced reach in rural and urban areas. Acknowledging its relevance, 3GPP, the standards body for mobile communications, has agreed to a plan of action that will allow the merger of 5Gi and 3GPP 5G by March 2022. This has been made possible due to the work done by research in IITs and a few other institutions, and coordinated action between research institutions, industry and government.

What are your views on India’s evolving fixed broadband landscape? What are the key opportunities and challenges in this space?

The optical fibre network deployed up to the gram panchayat level under the BharatNet project can be used for taking broadband up to the village level. Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) has started engaging with internet service providers (ISPs) to make available internet bandwidth up to villages using the BharatNet network. BharatNet has signed up with nearly 50 ISPs in the last one month to expand rural FTTH connections. With this, utilisation is expected to accelerate. Further, the department has recently amended the RoW Rules and sensitised field units for proactively taking up pending RoW applications of service providers with the concerned departments in the state governments on a regular basis.

What has been the progress under the government’s PM-WANI initiative? In your opinion, how will the initiative impact India’s digital landscape?

The PM-WANI framework does not require any licence or registration by last-mile public Wi-Fi providers (PDOs), and even aggregators (PDOAs) of last-mile providers do not require any licence. A very simplified online registration mechanism by the department facilitated the registration of 160 PDOAs in a year. More than 56,000 Wi-Fi access points have been deployed under the framework.

What are some of the areas that still need policy and regulatory attention?

The areas that still need policy and regulatory attention are:

  • Enabling industry 4.0 requires an appropriate policy framework for private wireless networks.
  • A satellite earth and gateway policy. The Department of Space is working on the SpaceCom Policy.

What is your outlook for the Indian telecom sector in 2022? What are the key trends that will shape the future of telecom in India?

The Indian telecom sector will be making significant strides on all fronts to bring state-of-the-art services to the public and enable indigenous, innovative technology development and manufacturing. We want intellectual property to be developed in India and new innovative products to be manufactured in India. A part of the PLI scheme for telecom equipment is being carved out for a design-led manufacturing scheme. For the first time, DoT has decided to invest 5 per cent of the Universal Service Obligation Fund in R&D in local companies for supporting R&D. This will enable local design and IPR development. We also want innovative Indian companies to participate in international standards bodies for making new-age standards for 6G, advanced optical and satellite communications.

Enabling 5G deployment as a thrust area, making available spectrum, fiberisation of towers, and RoW and related measures will be done to introduce 5G services in the country.

In addition, DoT is working to deepen the process of ease of doing business, easing the compliance burden in both wireless and wireline services, and finding ways to reduce the cost of doing business. Strengthening BharatNet delivery models in public-private partnership will be a priority to expand fiberisation to villages under gram panchayats. Facilitating broad­band services and digitalisation will be key to supporting other public services and quality broadband services.