Amit Sharma, executive vice-president and president, Asia, ATC

Telecom infrastructure is playing a crucial role in ensuring business continuity during Covid-19 times. Robust telecom infrastructure is also critical for the success of the Digital India programme. However, infrastructure roll-out in India is fraught with challenges. At a recent conference, Amit Sharma, executive vice-president and president, Asia, ATC, spoke about the emerging trends, key drivers, new business opportunities and industry outlook. Edited excerpts…

Outlook for the tower industry

Over the past few months, we have seen that telecom and broadband are absolutely essential in the ongoing crisis. Seamless and quality connectivity is critical for work for home, business continuity and maintaining essential services. Going forward, greater priority must undoubtedly be given to the Digital India programme and to the roll-out of telecom infrastructure, which will enable this vision. In the medium term, I expect tremendous growth in telecom in general, and in broadband and its related services. Closely aligned to this is the consequent need/demand for growth in telecom infrastructure.

Key challenges facing the industry

The telecom sector has been financially stressed for a while because of various industry competition factors. The industry has not been able to meet the capex requirements to grow the networks the way 4G requires, let alone making them 5G-proof. The Supreme Court’s adjusted gross revenue ruling has imposed further demands on the sector.

Another challenge is the rather long – drawn conversion of policy plans into action. The telecom infrastructure sector is currently bound by an IP permit that restricts players to provide only passive infrastructure. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has strongly recommended that in view of the technology evolution from 4G to 5G, where voice and data are converging, it is important to widen the scope of IP-1 players. While these recommendations are under consideration, we are still awaiting any concrete policy action on this front.

Further, we have been facing serious issues in setting up towers and laying fibre. While these come under a central mandate as part of the right-of-way (RoW) policy, their actual implementation depends on support from the state governments and urban local bodies. Municipalities need to understand the long term benefits and importance of the telecom sector and work with the industry to arrive at a mutually agreeable taxation regime and support the  implementation of RoW rules on ground.

Impact of Covid-19 on the industry

Traditionally, there has been a tremendous focus on the broadband needs of the enterprise vis-à-vis home use. This trend is changing as Covid-19 has shown that employees can work in a distributed way, from home. Thus, the residential aspect of broadband must be upgraded significantly.

Similarly, a lot of industry focus has been on serving big urban centres and that is where the bulk of the fibre is deployed. The fibre will now have to be moved to smaller cities and newer emerging areas of business. Both these developments require a massive increase in fiberisation, where it is the poorest at present – outside big cities and inside residential areas.

New and emerging infrastructure requirements with 5G

The ubiquitous Wi-Fi across urban areas will require edge data centres, as with 5G, a lot of data will have to be cached at the edge of the network.

Microcell deployment in India

India would probably need half a million small cells and microcells in the next three years, and no one stakeholder group has the capability to undertake this individually. Currently, microcell deployment is the prerogative of mobile network operators as such cells come under the ambit of active infrastructure. To this end, TRAI’s recommendations on enhancing towercos’ role to take up the creation/sharing of active infrastructure are welcome and the Department of Telecommunications must now act on making these into policy that can be implemented.

Focus on modernisation

As we move to a scenario where towers would be needed at every nook and corner, new designs are required. These towers must be lightweight. But most importantly, all new towers must be fiberised to serve in the 4G/5G era.

Opportunities for infrastructure players

Going forward, we are looking at a massive amount of new infrastructure, be it edge data centres, ubiquitous Wi-Fi networks, fibre-to-the-home services, etc. Wireless will, in fact, be the backup for mobility and not the primary means to it.