For the past several years, infrastructure providers have been grappling with several challenges, which have impeded the development of a robust telecommunication framework across the country. The key among these has been the delay in securing right of way (RoW) permissions owing to the tedious process involved. Further, exorbitant and multiple RoW charges have discouraged operators from undertaking significant network roll-outs. State governments have their own regulations pertaining to tower installations and the grant of RoW for fibre deployment. Also, there is erratic/ non-availability of power supply at telecom sites. There have also been growing concerns regarding electromagnetic frequency (EMF) emissions, which have led many local bodies to take coercive actions against tower installations.
In a bid to facilitate the setting up of telecom infrastructure in the country, the government and the telecom industry have undertaken several initiatives to address these concerns. A look at some of the key developments on this front…
In 2000, the government had formed a group on telecom and information technology convergence that promulgated an RoW regime free from all possible obstacles. Further, in 2012, it accorded infrastructure status to the telecom sector, thereby giving it the benefits of accelerated depreciation, low-interest loans, viability gap funding, higher external commercial borrowing limits, tax holidays and electricity connection on priority. The National Telecom Policy, 2012 also recognised the need to review and simplify the processes related to the grant of RoW permissions.
In 2013, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) issued advisory guidelines to the state governments for the installation of mobile towers. These guidelines regarded telecom installations as “lifeline installations” and a critical infrastructure in mobile communication. They re-emphasised the fact that India has adopted strict limits for radiation from base transceiver stations (BTSs), which are one-tenth of the international norms. Hence, to avoid disruption in mobile communication, the sealing of BTS towers and the disconnection of electricity cannot be resorted to without the consent of the Telecom, Enforcement, Resource and Monitoring Cell of DoT in respect of EMF-related issues.
In a further bid to resolve the issues related to RoW, DoT has recently released the draft Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules, 2016. The policy has proposed that the authorities involved should decide on the matter within 60 days of the receipt of an application. If the application is neither accepted nor rejected within this time period, it will be deemed approved. Further, in order to address the issue of arbitrary rates imposed by various government bodies, DoT has proposed that payments sought by the authorities should be calculated on the basis of the applicable schedule of rates for works of similar nature executed by them from time to time. The authorities concerned should also not impose any fee, charge, lease rental or licence fee other than reinstatement charges towards the expenses they would incur as a consequence of the proposed work. For instance, in the case of underground telecom infrastructure, all government agencies/local bodies should only levy reinstatement charges.
Meanwhile, DoT and the Ministry of Urban Development have also given in-principle approval for the installation of telecom towers on government building premises. DoT has also asked the state governments to permit such installations.
Industry associations such as the Telecom and Infrastructure Providers Association of India (TAIPA) are engaging with various state governments to persuade them to align their respective state policies with DoT advisory guidelines. They are also holding meetings with municipal corporations and other state departments to address local RoW issues. Further, awareness workshops with citizen groups, resident welfare associations, doctors and academia are being organised to dispel fears related to EMF radiations from towers.
At their end, telecom operators are taking various measures such as the use of new spectrum optimisation techniques to improve their quality of service. They are also upgrading their BTSs wherever feasible. Moreover, operators are deploying in-building solutions and distributed antenna systems to overcome coverage issues.
The way forward
As of now, the policy directives by the government have failed to make any significant impact on the ground. Going forward, a uniform RoW policy across states, facilitating the deployment of telecom infrastructure is imperative for the success of government initiatives such as Digital India. The policy should provide for online single-window clearance in a time-bound manner and a one-time nominal administrative fee. In addition, it should address the concerns of government authorities relating to public inconvenience, structural safety and payment of expenses and compensation.
Based on a presentation by T.R. Dua, Director General, TAIPA