Today, Indian telecom has emerged as one of the fastest growing markets. Currently, the country has around 1.18 billion total telecom subscribers and 681 million broadband users. However, it has barely scratched the surface given the immense digitalisation potential lying untapped, particularly in rural areas. Rural teledensity is only 57.59 per cent while internet penetration stands at only 27.57 per cent. To tap this unexplored potential, the country needs to resort to a medium like fibre that will help accelerate the digital revolution.
Fibre can be termed as a high quality broadband enabler as it can provision services that require high speed, ultra-low latency and limitless bandwidth. Fiberisation also makes the telecom network highly secure due to its sensor-driven disaggregated architecture. In addition, optical fibre cable (OFC) networks can facilitate the creation of data centres, enable security surveillance and support internet of things (IoT)-based services. Moreover, the recent surge in data consumption witnessed since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to a shift in traffic patterns and bandwidth requirements, has made the case for increasing fibre penetration even stronger.
Role of fiberisation in enabling 5G and other technologies
The advent of 5G technology will require a multifold increase in small cell deployment, with each small cell having fibre-based backhaul. While the current capacity per tower site for 2G/3G/4G services is about 1 Gbps, the capacity needed by each site for 5G will increase to 10-20 Gbps. In order to achieve capacities of 10-20 Gbps, there is a need to deploy fibre across all tower sites. Apart from 5G, other emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality and blockchain are all set to change the way businesses operate. These technologies utilise huge amounts of data, and necessitate the establishment of fiberised backhaul to transmit this data.
At present, the country has a total fibre footprint of 2.2 million km. Despite being the second largest telecom market in the world, India’s level of fiberisation remains fairly low in comparison to its global peers. The level of tower fiberisation in India currently stands at around 31 per cent in comparison to 70 per cent in Korea and 75 per cent in the US, China and Japan. Moreover, the fibre km per capita in India stands at a meagre 0.09 in comparison to 1.35 in Japan, 1.34 in the US, 0.87 in China and 0.68 in Western Europe.
Over the past few years, the government has been taking a number of measures to encourage fibre roll-out. For instance, the central government introduced the Right of Way (RoW) Rules in 2016 to regulate both OFC and tower infrastructure. States and union territories (UTs) were asked to align their RoW policies with the central government’s RoW Rules, 2016 to facilitate investment in telecom infrastructure. Further, the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 extensively focuses on fiberisation and aims to set up a National Fibre Authority that will regulate OFC infrastructure and establishment of common ducts and utility corridors. However, the authority has not been established till date and its creation needs to be expedited.
Another recent initiative launched by the government is the National Broadband Mission, which aims to increase India’s present fibre route length from 2.2 million km to 5 million km by 2022. Further, the mission aims to increase tower fiberisation from 30 per cent to 70 per cent. It also envisions the creation of a broadband readiness index (BRI), which would evaluate states on several parameters related to fiberisation. The framework will not only evaluate a state’s relative development but will also develop a better understanding of its strengths and weaknesses that can help in evidence-based policy making and promote fiberisation.
Going forward, the industry needs to adopt a four-pronged approach to accelerate fiberisation. For one, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s recommendations on enhancing the scope of infrastructure providers need to be adopted as they will help in attracting the much-needed investments for building digital infrastructure. Second, the government should look at mandating sharing of fibre to the tower. This would help avoid the duplication of infrastructure and frequent disruptions to traffic, thus reducing the capex requirement. Third, the amendment to the National Building Code should be adopted by all states. This would mandate all upcoming infrastructure projects to have provisions for laying ducts and cables for telecom services, similar to the provisions for public utilities like water and electricity. Fourth, a National Common Duct Policy for laying fibre across state roads, national highways and municipal roads will help pave the way for efficient fibre roll-out across the country.