As we move into the 5G era, network densification will be a key feature to support the high-bandwidth applications and surge in data traffic. To accelerate digital infrastructure development in the country, a significant overhaul of existing policies, procedures and processes will be required.

One such initiative is the Prime Mi­nis­ter Gati Shakti National Master Plan (PMGS-NMP), which aims to transform infrastructure deployment through countrywide mapping and greater visibility. A recent report, “Gati Shakti – Paving the Way for Accelerated Digital Infrastructure Roll-out in India”, by EY and the Digital Infrastructure Providers Association, highlights the key features of the PMGS-NMP and the way forward. presents the key takeaways from the report…

5G and its role in enabling a digital India

5G is set to accelerate India’s digitalisation efforts and unlock the next level of economic growth. Once deployed, 5G is ex­pected to spur innovation in digital services, manufacturing, healthcare, education, entertainment and many more industries. The Government of India has estimated that 5G can potentially contribute $450 billion to the Indian economy over the next 15 years.

Investments in digital infrastructure

5G roll-out in India will require a significant overhaul of the existing telecom infrastructure. India’s telecom revolution has been facilitated by the country’s digital infrastructure providers (IP-1s), especially the towercos. The launch of 5G presents a greenfield opportunity for towercos in the form of installation of 5G macro cells, upgrade of existing towers as equipment load (from massive multiple input multiple output [MIMO] antennas) increases, and densification of networks. Passive infrastructure capex for macro tower set-up is estimated to be approximately Rs 775 billion during 2022-27. The other investments will be incurred in 5G’s critical building blocks – optical fibre cable (OFC) networks, small cells, in-building solutions (IBS) and edge computing.

One of the key challenges of OFC de­ployment is the timely availability of reasonably priced passive infrastructure. Com­mon ducts are an example of passive infrastructure. This is a shared underground conduit that can hold fibre, cables and pipes from multiple service providers and utilities in separate micro ducts. It can expedite the process of OFC deployment by eliminating the time-consuming processes of right-of-way (RoW) permissions and road excavations. Although the deployment of such common ducts is under way in India, it needs to be significantly scaled up.

Further, street furniture can be uti­li­sed to mount small cells for providing te­le­com services. Some common examples of street furniture include utility poles, billboards, lamp posts, traffic signals and pu­blic structures like gazebos and bus stops. The availability of street furniture in the form of millions of street lights, thousands of bus stops, hundreds of metro pillars can be a boon for economical and rapid deployment of small cells. Conside­ring the costs involved, complexity and time frames for densification of the proposed 5G network infrastructure, there is a need to put in place a mechanism for using existing street resources for large-scale small cell deployment.

The business case for edge data centre deployment depends on factors such as ge­ographic location, surrounding industries and network design. Deployments in den­se, urban, industrial clutters can potentially support latency-sensitive applications and power high-speed computing. To­wer­cos can provide server space to content pro­viders and cloud providers, and enable real-time applications with rich and im­mer­sive experience for end-users. Such ed­ge infrastructure can also enable loca­li­sed cloud radio access network (RAN), thereby allowing telcos to make their networks more flexible and versatile.

Business model transition

Indian towercos had pioneered the concept of pooling in passive telecom infrastructure and offering neutral host services to Indian telcos. This not only enabled telcos to optimise their capex and opex but also facilitated faster time-to-market and affordable services. The roll-out of 5G services in India will possibly require a further evolution of the digital infrastructure sharing business model.

Globally, RAN sharing is emerging as one of the key enablers of 5G deployments. In order to improve their financial health and operational efficiency, some of the leading global telcos have begun spinning off their active network assets, such as small cells and fibre. With this, they are transitioning into the servco business model. At the same time, some leading North Ame­rican and European towercos have begun consolidating active network assets and moving up the value chain, in turn, transforming into netcos. This business model transition is facilitated by application programming interfaces. These allow a single netco to offer active network infrastructure access to several telcos, thereby enabling it to position itself as a neutral infrastructure provider. As India prepares for 5G roll-out, Indian towercos will need to take cues from the evolving business practices in the 5G era globally.

PM Gati Shakti National Master Plan

The PMGS-NMP was launched in Oc­tober 2021, with an outlay of Rs 100 trillion. This digital platform brings together 16 ministries for integrated planning and coordinated implementation of infrastructure connectivity projects. This platform will be driven by seven engines – roads, rail­ways, airports, ports, mass transport, waterways and logistics infrastructure. These engines will be supported by energy transmission, IT communication, bulk wa­ter and sewerage, and social infrastructure. Projects pertaining to these seven engines, such as the National Broadband Mission, Bh­aratmala, Sagarmala and Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik, will be aligned with the PMGS-NMP.

The platform will incorporate tech­no­logy, such as spatial planning tools, with In­dian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) imagery developed by the Bhas­ka­racharya National Institute for Space Applications and Geoinformatics (BiSAG-N). This will enable country-wide mapp­ing of infrastructure such as mobile towers and OFC to the PMGS-NMP platform and offer visibility into the deployment of such assets.

The PMGS-NMP is highly relevant to India’s telecom sector, and it offers a major boost for the development of a robust digital communications infrastructure, which will power the digital transformation of all the other industries in India.

Gati Shakti Sanchar portal

Realising the dream of a superior digital infrastructure will require transparency, accountability and responsiveness in processing applications. Delays due to inconsistency and uncertainty in policies and pro­cesses in implementing the RoW Rules, 2016 need to be addressed prom­ptly. Keeping this in mind, and in line with the PMGS-NMP, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) launched the Gati Shakti Sanchar portal in May 2022. This portal offers a collaborative institutional mechanism for all stakeholders, including central and state/UT governments, central landowning authoriti­es, local bodies, and telecom sector entiti­es. It has been set up to improve the ease of doing business by bringing transparency, accountability and responsiveness while processing RoW applications.

Initiatives for ease of deploying digital infrastructure

The PMGS-NMP and Gati Shakti Sanchar portal will complement several other initiatives that are under way for easing digital infrastructure development. Mo­st of these initiatives are centred on enhancing transparency and reducing the regulatory and administrative burden on infrastructure development. These include guidelines or exploratory ideas that are not yet notified as rules. Considering the current momentum, their formalisation may likely happen soon.

Headwinds plague digital infrastructure development

A conducive regulatory environment is needed to maximise digital infrastructu­re roll-out in the country. Addressing some of the regulatory issues faced by to­w­­er­cos/IP-Is will go a long way in bu­il­ding the digital backbone of the nation. In the past five years, the government has taken several measures to mitigate some of the challenges. How­ever, more needs to be done and implementation at the ground level continues to be a major impediment.

Currently, 35 states have aligned their tower policies with the RoW Rules issued by DoT. However, non-implementation of the RoW Rules has created several hurdles as far as fibre deployment across tower sites is concerned. Expenses for RoW remain the biggest cost component for tower operators. In addition, administration fees levied on processing tower site approvals is not aligned with the central policy of 2016, leading to higher cost. Delays in obtaining no-objection certificates pertaining to mobile tower sites add to the time pressure.

Further, the laying of OFC is associated with high costs and complex installation and thus acts as a major restraining factor. For laying OFC, permission has to be sought from various government departments. In addition, the cost of electricity connection is high. This leads to delays in rolling out the necessary infrastructure and leads to increase in costs.