Despite being the seco­nd-largest telecom market, India’s fibre km (fkm) per capita significantly lags behind several other key markets. For instance, Chi­na, with a population of over 1.3 billi­on, has a fkm per capita of 0.87, while India, with approximately 1.2 billion population, has only 0.09 fkm per capita (one-tenth of Chinese consumption).

India currently has over 3.7 million km of OFC. However, to achieve the Prime Minister’s vision, laid down in August 2020, of connecting every village with OFC within 1,000 days, the cable installation rate must increase nearly 3.6 times the current spe­ed, up from the existing average of 350 km per day to over 1,251 km per day. The estimated investment required for incremental tower fiberisation is Rs 520 billion-Rs 595 billion.

While the number of telecom towers in the country has increased from 439,000 in 2015 to 760,349 as of May 2023, the nu­m­ber of base transceiver stations (BTSs) has shown a substantial surge from 775,000 to 2.64 million during the same period. As of May 2023, out of the total installed towers and BTSs, 38 per cent are fiberised. Among states, Maharashtra has the highest BTS fiberisation at 74.94 per cent, followed by Puducherry (58.5 per cent), Delhi (51.78 per cent) and Kolkata (50.26 per cent).

Government initiatives

Gati Shakti Sanchar portal

The government has launched the Gati Shakti Sanchar portal to streamline centralised right-of-way (RoW) approvals. The portal is an institutional mechanism that brings together all stakeholders, in­cluding central and state governments, lo­cal bodies and service providers, to facilitate the RoW application process for both overground and underground digital infrastructure through a single interface. The portal in­cor­porates a dashboard that enables effective monitoring of RoW applications across the country, showing state- and district-wise pendency status. This will streamline the RoW approval process, expediting the laying of the OFC network and thereby accelerating fiberisation. As a result,  tower density will increa­se, leading to enhanced connectivity and improved quality of various telecom services, along with increased fiberisation of telecom towers.

The Digital Infrastructure Providers As­so­ciation (DIPA) has been continuously working with the government to reduce the average number of days to process RoW applications. Through the collaborative efforts of DIPA and the governme­nt, the average number of days to pro­ce­ss telecom tower applications has reduced from 234 days in June 2021 to 6.66 days in May 2023. The yearly average has decrea­sed from 487 days in 2019 to 29.33 days in 2023. Among states, Himachal Pradesh has the lowest average application processing time with just five days, followed by Uttara­khand with 10 days and Maha­ra­shtra with 11 days.

RoW Rules

The Indian Telegraph RoW (Amend­me­nt) Rules, 2022, announced by the government on August 17, 2022, to define a fra­me­work for laying underground/overhead OFC, towers, small cells etc; have facilitated the deployment of digital infrastructure and, consequently, the nationwide roll-out of 5G. The amendments in­clude the rationalisation of charges, the introduction of a single-window clearance system and with the elimination of the need for consent from a government au­thority for installing infrastructure over private property. So far, 16 states/union territories (UTs) have aligned their RoW policies with the central RoW (Amend­ment) Rules, 2022 while 34 states/UTs have uploaded their pendency reports on the GatiShakti Sanchar portal.

National Broadband Mission

The National Broadband Mission was launched in December 2019. It aims to provide broadband access to all villages, deploy additional 1 million towers, increa­se tower density from 0.42 to one tower per 1,000 population, and achieve at least 70 per cent tower fiberisation by March 2025. Notable progress has been made under the mission. Currently, the broadband connectivity to villages stands at 95.12 per cent, coming very close to the target of 100 per cent. Meanwhile, 760,000 telecom towers have been installed, compared to the target of 1 million towers by 2022-23. The cumulative mapping of fibre has rea­ched 84 per cent (for government PSUs), surpassing the target of 60 per cent for the year.

CBuD mobile app

The call-before-you-dig (CBuD) mobile application is an initiative introduced by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to provide an interface for excavating agencies and utility asset owners to co­ordinate the proposed excavation or digging activities and safeguard existing un­der­lying utility assets, such as OFCs, from damages. As of May 2023, all states and UTs, except Goa, Lakshadweep, Mi­zo­ram, Sikkim and Tripura, have onboarded the CBuD application.

Common duct project

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of In­dia (TRAI) is currently engaged in active discussions to formulate guidelines for common ducts on a pan-India level. Com­mon ducts will play an important role in laying fibre and can be utilised by telecom service providers, cable operators, internet service providers and public utilities in pro­visioning their services. By leveraging the passive infrastructure sharing model on the common duct infrastructure, the duct could be shared with the players on a non-discriminatory basis, enabling faster go-to-market times, savings in capex, and affordability of services for consumers.

Other initiatives

The government has taken various other initiatives to enhance the last-mile connectivity of fibre. For instance, the National Digital Communications Policy 2018 em­phasises a “fibre-first initiative” to extend fibre connectivity to homes, enterprises and key development institutions, by gra­nting OFCs the status of public utility. Fur­ther, TRAI’s recommendations on in-building access categorically highlight the need for provisions to be made in all upcoming infrastructure initiatives to create spaces/ducts for common telecom in­fra­structure. DoT has announced the establishment of the National Fiber Au­tho­rity of India, which will prioritise the resolution of issues related to the OFC roll-out. The government has also set up four steering committees, 130 state broadband committees, and 400 district-level technical committees to facilitate support and the implementation of these initiatives. Recently, the government an­noun­ced an additional investment of $13 billion for establishing an optical fibre grid across the nation to boost connectivity and provide affordable internet access to all. It has invested $8.3 billion in this project, bringing the total to over Rs 1 trillion.

DIPA is currently working with central/state governments on several key telecom issues such as expanding the scope of work for infrastructure providers, aligning and implementing the RoW (Amendment) Rules, 2022, green energy initiatives and electricity issues; and addressing input tax credits for the industry.

Key challenges

Only 16 out of 36 states and UTs have ad­opted the RoW (Amendment) Rules, 2022. The Ministry of Defence, the National Hi­ghways Authority of India, the Airport Authority of India and several local self-governing bodies/municipalities, such as Kolkata Municipal Corporation, are yet to adopt the Gati Shakti San­char portal. Delays in obtaining the necessary permissions in regions where policies are not aligned with the RoW Rules further escalate the overall cost of the project. Another challenge is the exorbitant cost of fibre sh­a­ring and underground fibre crossing imposed by central agencies and essential service providers.

Recommendations and outlook

RoW and restoration charges need to be rationalised across states. The developme­nt of a national common duct policy for laying fibre across state roads, national hi­gh­ways and municipal roads will pave the way for the efficient laying of fibre infrastructure across the country. It is crucial for the remaining 20 states/UTs to align with the RoW (Amendment) Rules, 2022. Adoption of the Amended Model Building Bye-Laws, 2016 and the Call-Before-You-Dig app by the remaining states/UTs, and subsidies through USOF for roll-out of telecom infrastructure are some other support measures that the telecom industry is seeking for from the government. In view of the exorbitant costs involved, it is imperative for operators to opt for a sharing approach when it comes to infrastructure planning and utilisation. Shared planning of routes for fibre roll-out will lead to cost savings by avoiding duplication. Profitable lending progra­m­mes by financial institutions can create be­tter investment opportunities in the telecom infrastructure sector.

Based on a presentation by T.R. Dua, Director General, DIPA