Robust telecom infrastructure is crucial for providing nationwide connectivity and realising government initiatives such as Digital India and the Smart Cities Mission, among others. Over the years, telecom tower infrastructure has played an important role in the expansion of affordable telephony, contributing towards the development of a reliable communication network and growth of telecom services in the country. While India has pioneered the tower sharing model, several other countries have adopted it in recent years. How­ever, the industry faces a plethora of challenges ranging from right-of-way (RoW) issues to low fiberisation at tower sites. A look at the current trends and the way forward for the industry…

Pioneering the tower sharing model

The tower sharing model allows tower sites to host active network components of multiple telecom service providers. Under this model, telecom infrastructure is shared with the operators in a non-discriminatory, transparent and cost-effective manner. Tower infrastructure companies provide an integrated, neutral host platform that is used by diverse and often competing operators, which helps build a unique, scalable and successful business model for providing telecom services. The benefits of tower sharing include reduced capex and opex, faster service roll-out, cost and energy efficiencies, increased connectivity, safety, improved aesthetics, and a reduction in entry barriers.

Tower sharing is now being practised across the globe as operators look to minimise capex and opex, and make operations efficient. For instance, operators in China see tower sharing as an effective strategy to accelerate 4G service expansion. An estimated 600,000 towers are being shared in the country. Currently, Sri Lanka has around 7,500 towers with high levels of bilateral sharing, as indicated by a tenancy ratio close to two. The Canadian government has announced a policy for auctioning advanced wireless services radio spectrum in the 2 GHz band, which makes network sharing compulsory. The new framework also includes mandatory sharing of antenna towers and infrastructure sites, and the prohibition of most exclusive site sharing arrangements. Nepal too views infrastructure sharing as an efficient means to address access issues. According to the Nepal Telecommunication Autho­rity, infrastructure sharing is generally defined as two or more operators coming together to share various parts of their net­work infrastructure. There are fewer than 7,500 towers in Laos, all of which are mobile network operator-captive, with quite an active market for bilateral infrastructure sharing (barter system).

Need for fiberisation

Fiberisation of towers is critical to address the data revolution that is under way. However, at present, less than 20 per cent of the country’s telecom towers are fiber­ised. Meanwhile, this figure ranges from 75 to 80 per cent in the US, China and Japan, and from 65 to 70 per cent in South Korea. Due to the low rate of fiberisation of sites in India, government programmes like Digital India and the Smart Cities Mission are at peril.

The growth of fibre is very important in view of the ongoing exponential in­crease in data demand and improved quality of service (QoS). With emerging technologies and services like 5G, there is a need to enhance the fibre network to meet the requirements of present and future technologies, and improve connectivity. In the Indian context, infrastructure provi­ders are best positioned to accelerate the rate of fiberisation of sites.

Progress on the implementation of RoW rules

The Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules, 2016 issued on November 15, 2016, were a positive step by the Department of Tele­communications (DoT) for creating an enabling framework for obtaining RoW approvals and streamlining the whole process. The enabling features of the rules are the creation of an online single-window clearance portal by the state governments, a nominal one-time administrative fee for telecom infrastructure (Rs 10,000 for overground infrastructure and Rs 1,000 per km for underground infrastructure); time-bound and deemed approvals; and the establishment of a dispute resolution mechanism.

Currently, around seven states including Odisha, Jharkhand, Haryana, Rajas­than and Assam have notified and aligned their policies with the government’s rules, while the RoW policies of 13 other states are under discussion. Further, Haryana, Rajasthan and Odisha have gone ahead and issued directives to all the state de­part­ments regarding down-the-line im­ple­­mentation of their respective policies. States such as Assam, Rajasthan and Odi­sha are also working towards developing an online single-window clearance portal. An online mechanism for the submission of applications with deemed approvals will enhance ease of doing business by reducing inefficiencies and delays in obtaining permissions.

Currently, nine states are still lacking any sort of policy, which is a setback. Th­ere exist several issues due to the non-alignment of RoW policies.

The majority of the states have issued more than one policy for the installation of telecom towers, resulting in confusion and de­lays in tower roll-outs. For instance, Delhi has policies issued by several municipal authorities that operate in the city. Fur­ther, there is an absence of a single-window clearance mechanism. Approvals from multiple authorities and issuance of multiple no-objection certificates from various departments delay and hinder the roll-out of new sites. Also, the multiple fees and levies charged for RoW are a key challenge. For instance, in states with unaligned RoW rules, there are multiple fees ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 500,000 in some cases. Additionally, there are annual or renewal charges as well as sharing charges in some cases along with other taxes and levies. These states also have restrictions on the installation of telecom infrastructure near schools, colleges, hospitals and residential areas. Availability of government land and buildings is an issue, and there are restrictions regarding the height and setback limits for towers. Another challenge is the poor availability of grid power in various pockets of the country. Further, tower companies, which have been accorded “infrastructure status” continue to be charged commercial tariff rates. There is also often arbitrary sealing of towers and disconnection of electricity, which impact downtime and QoS.

The way forward

Going forward, government support is required to uniformly enforce the RoW Rules across states. Restrictions on the location of mobile towers should be done away with and single-window, time-bound clearances should be encouraged to ensure the rapid development of networks. Moreover, space for installation of telecom towers on government buildings, defence land, airports, railway stations, residential complexes, etc. should be provided at industrial rates, along with an uninterrupted supply of grid power on a priority basis.

It has been estimated that the number of telecom towers in the country will cross half a million by 2020, driven by sub-urban and rural growth, smart cities and 4G proliferation.

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