The large-scale roll-out of 4G services and the surge in data demand have opened up new opportunities for Indus Towers, one of the largest telecom infrastructure players in the country. With a strong portfolio of around 123,000 towers, the company is looking beyond ­traditional business models and capitalising on opportunities in areas such as Wi-Fi hotspots, fiberisation and in-building solutions. The company is also contributing significantly towards the green telecom vision by reducing diesel usage and deploying renewable energy solutions at tower sites. In an interview with, Tejinder Kalra, chief operating officer, Indus Towers, talks about the company’s performance in 2017, the impact of the ongoing consolidation in the industry, the key trends in the energy management space, and the opportunities emerging from the government’s Digital India and Smart CitiesMission initiatives. Excerpts…

What were the key highlights of Indus Towers’ operations last year?

Indus Towers witnessed a rising trajectory in 2017 on the back of improved regu­latory policies and the successful ­roll-out of 4G services across the country. On the one hand, we have seen small­er telecom operators consolidating at a very rapid pace, on the other, we ha­ve seen the big incumbent operators ­ramping up investments in 4G roll-outs in every telecom circle in the country. This, of course, has worked out well for the telecom infrastructure industry, which has been the lifeline behind providing the massive speed and scale for such huge network roll-outs.

Indus Towers, with a vision of “Put­­t­ing India First”, is working ­closely wi­th the government’s mission of “Digi­tal India”. Over the years, we have built a strong portfolio of around 123,000 towers and achieved 300,000 ­tenancies, with a focus on improving connectivity in the hinterland. Last year, we achieved a milestone of over 62,000 green sites and we have a vision to be diesel-free in our operations in the coming four to six years. Innovation has been one of our core values and sustainable telecom continues to be a big business agenda for us.

How successful have the new RoW rules been in facilitating telecom infrastructure deployment?

With the new right-of-way (RoW) policy, the central government has taken progressive steps. The policy has provisioned for no restriction on the location of telecom towers, a single-window clearance mechanism, a defined time period for approvals, the appointment of nodal officers, nominal administrative fees and deemed app­rovals. We are working closely with the state governments to adopt the progressive app­roach taken by the central government and devise their respective sta­te RoW policies. Some states like Har­ya­na, Odisha and Rajasthan have taken the lead in this and released state-specific policies. This has greatly helped in removing several roadblocks for telecom infrastructure companies. We are now looking forward to the National Telecom Policy, 2018, which is expected to set the roadmap for the future grow­th of telecom in the country. Tele­com infrastructure companies are enthusiastic about playing an even bigger role in building the infrastructure for digital highways, which will help achieve the prime minister’s vision of Digital India and smart cities.

“Innovation has been one of our core values and sustainable telecom continues to be a big business agenda for us

What are the key trends in the energy management space in the telecom infrastructure industry? What initiatives has Indus Towers taken to address the energy management challenge at tower sites?

The telecom infrastructure industry is undergoing transitional changes. With a renewed focus on green telecom ­infra­structure, we are making headway in be­coming more socially responsible and laying greater emphasis on sustainability. Re­new­able energy sources such as solar and wind are being used as long-term power solutions for telecom towers. By shifting away from diesel generators as the primary power source, Indus Towers has significantly brought down carbon ­emissions. Sites where the dependence on diesel is eliminated are termed as “green towers or green sites”.

One of the significant steps to reduce power consumption at our tower sites has been to replace air conditioning with free cooling units (FCUs). FCUs ensure heat transfer between the ambient environment and the shelter, but with a much-reduced energy consumption. Along with adopting renewable energy solutions, we have taken steps to gradually make our tower sites diesel-free. We envision be­co­ming diesel-free in a time horizon of four to six years.

What business potential do emerging technologies such as in-building solutions, Wi-Fi and fibre hold for tower companies?

The rapid deployment of 4G networks and the exponential growth in data ­cons­umption are driving telecom operators to connect their sites with fibre. At the same time, unlike voice, data consumption takes place largely indoors and, given the ­­in-building penetration challenges of higher frequency spectrum, the need for in-building coverage solutions is higher than ever before. This has thrown open a massive opportunity for passive infrastructure ­companies like Indus Towers to build ­neutral host last-mile fibre and in-building infra­s­tructure that can be shared among multiple operators. Growth op­por­­tunities are emerging in fibre deployment and small cells for boosting indoor network coverage. The industry expects to grow significantly on the back of network fiberisation and small cells over the next few years in an incre­asingly data-centric market. The expansion of 4G networks, greater affordability and penetration of smartphones, and a surge in data demand have opened up new oppo­r­tunities for the telecom tower ­industry.

“In the increasingly data-centric market, the industry expects to grow significantly on the back of network fiberisation and small cells over the next few years.”

What opportunities and challenges are ­likely to emerge for infrastructure players from the on­going consolidation in the ­tele­com industry?

Due to the emergence of new and competitive service models, the telecom sector is already witnessing consolidation wherein mobile network operators and infrastructure providers are coming together to better utilise their spectrum and infrastructure. This will also expand the reach of network coverage and bring down infrastructure costs. As mobile network operators spread the reach of 4G across regions and look ­forward to introducing new and faster ­technologies, the growth opportunities for telecom tower companies is substantial.

What opportunities do government initiatives such as the Smart Cities Mission and Digital India offer to tower companies? How does Indus Towers plan to leverage these?

The Smart Cities Mission is an excellent opportunity for infrastructure players like Indus Towers to provide the digital backbone for these cities. The various smart services of these smart cities would be riding on a broadband highway (whether fibre or wireless) and Indus Towers is a key enabler of such infrastructure. The company will continue to invest in opportunities in the Smart Cities Mission and partner with competent stakeholders in this space.

What are the company’s expansion plans and growth strategies?

Fuelled by the exploding data usage and the roll-out of next-generation 4G/voice over long term evolution networks, the to­wer industry will continue its growth journey in the coming years. Given the hypercompetitive market situation and the ex­plosive data demand, the relevance of net­work ­infra­structure sharing is only going to increase going forward. Indus Towers will be looking beyond traditional business models and will capitalise on op­portunities in areas such as Wi-Fi hot­spots, fiberisation and Smart Cities.

In your view, what are some of the areas that require policy/regulatory action? What are your expectations from the National Telecom Policy, 2018?

In various discussions, the government has assured industry stakeholders that the new telecom policy will focus on end users and will look at new opportunities for expanding the availability of telecom services. Internet of things, 5G and network virtualisation are the new-age technologies that will be addressed through the new policy, along with measures to reduce the financial stress in the sector. We are eagerly looking forward to new policy.

The policy is being formulated in ­con­sultation with industry players and ­foll­ows an extremely transparent method, which is something we greatly appreciate. Our expectations are really basic. We wish for a robust mechanism to ensure uniform policies across various geographies, with equal compliance from the state ­govern­ments. We also look forward to the ­inclu­sion of telecom towers in the plant and machinery clause of the Goods and Servi­ces Tax Act, which would greatly redu­ce the tax burden of tower deployment, enabling ­telecom ­services to be availed of by every citizen. This will enable the telecom infrastructure sector to contribute significantly to the government’s flagship Digital India initiative and Smart Cities Mission.