Indian telecom operators are gearing up to launch the next generation of wireless services, 5G, in select cities in October 2022. 5G is more than just an incremental improvement in cellular networks; it promises to offer up to hundred times faster speed than 4G and ultra-reliable low-latency communication services. 5G is poised to become the key enabler for internet of things and machine-to-machine communications, which are finding wide application across enterprises.
However, to achieve near-zero latency and extremely high throughput, the 5G network infrastructure will need up to ten times more bandwidth than the 4G infrastructure currently supports. Therefore, the roll-out of 5G services needs to be complemented with a significant ramp-up of telecom infrastructure comprising telecom towers and the fibre network. To this end, the government recently announced certain amendments to the Indian Telegraph Right of Way (RoW) Rules 2016 to expedite the upgradation of telecom networks and bring down the time and cost of deployment of telecom infrastructure. These amendments include rationalising the administrative charges levied on operators for securing RoW permissions, introducing a single-window clearance system for RoW approvals, and a ceiling for RoW charges for installing 5G small cells and optical fibre cable (OFC) on street furniture. The amended rules are expected to enhance the deployment of telecom infrastructure in the country and help in the proliferation of 5G services.
Infrastructure requirements of 5G
A successful roll-out of 5G services hinges on significantly improving the fiberisation levels. Fibre-based backhaul is critical to deploy 5G to have low latency, low interference and high network capacity, which can transfer data back and forth to the core network. Currently, the fibre kilometre (fkm) per capita in India is just 0.09 compared to 1.34 fkm in the US and 1.35 fkm in Japan. Further, only around 36 per cent of the towers in India are currently fiberised, while the level of fiberisation in countries such as the US, Japan and China is 80-90 per cent. Experts contend that at least 70 per cent of towers need to be fiberised by 2024 for a full-scale launch of 5G services in the country, which would entail an investment of Rs 2.2 trillion.
Meanwhile, 5G will require a significant increase in small cell deployment, with each small cell to be backhauled through fibre. Small cells are emerging as the critical component of the 5G roll-out strategy of telecom operators worldwide. This is because most of the telecom operators are planning to use the millimetre (mm) wave spectrum, which provides higher capacity rates compared to the low band spectrum but covers smaller distances. It is not possible to deploy the mmWave spectrum through macro networks, given the propagation characteristics that limit the ability of the mmWave to penetrate walls, trees, buildings or other structures. Hence, radios need to be closer than they are currently in 3G or 4G, which makes small cells a natural fit for 5G roll-out.
New RoW rules
The government has made several changes to the existing RoW rules to ensure the ease of doing business for telecom operators and reduce their cost of compliance with regard to the installation of 5G infrastructure. For one, telecom licensees have now been allowed to use street infrastructure to install telecom equipment at a nominal cost of Rs 150 per annum in rural areas and Rs 300 per annum in urban areas. This is expected to give a significant boost to the deployment of small cells. Further, to facilitate fiberisation, the government has allowed telecom operators to install overground optical fibre on street infrastructure at the cost of Rs 100 per annum. Moreover, the amended rules distinguish between “poles” and “mobile towers” by specifying that overground infrastructure of height up to 8 metres shall be treated as poles and therefore need minimal regulatory permissions for deployment.
The amendments also provide for a single-window clearance system for all RoW applications to reduce the compliance requirements emanating from the involvement of multiple agencies and procedures, and facilitate easier approvals. As per the new rules, the Gati Shakti Sanchar Portal of the Ministry of Communications will be the single-window portal for all telecom-related RoW applications. The telecom licensees will not be required to submit RoW applications on the individual platforms of states and union territories (UTs).
The government has rationalised the administrative fees levied on telecom operators for securing RoW permissions. The amended rules prescribe that the central government or its agencies will not charge any administrative fee for establishing poles on their lands. Meanwhile, for states and UTs, the maximum administrative fee for establishing poles has been fixed as Rs 1,000 per pole. Further, telecom licensees shall not be required to pay compensation for land to install the poles. The rules also mandate that the administrative fee for laying overground optical fibre cannot exceed Rs 1,000 per km. The amendments also prescribe a uniform methodology to calculate the area occupied by telecom infrastructure to determine the charges to be levied on telecom licensees. At present, different agencies use different methods to calculate this area.
Meanwhile, the government has sought to lower the costs incurred by operators for restoration-related works. Currently, the telecom licensees either have to undertake the restoration themselves or pay the concerned authority for restoration work. Further, if the telecom licensee undertakes the restoration work, it has to submit a bank guarantee amounting to 100 per cent of the restoration cost to the concerned agency. The new rules have reduced this bank guarantee to 20 per cent of the restoration cost only. Moreover, as per the amended rules, if the telecom licensee wishes to pay the concerned agencies, the restoration cost shall be calculated at the rates prescribed by the central public works department or public works department of the state/UT. The restoration costs have also been rationalised for optical fibre cables when these are laid without digging a full trench. In such cases, the telecom licensee shall pay restoration charges only for the pits, and not for the entire route.
The amended rules have made it easier for telecom licensees to deploy infrastructure over private property. Telecom licensees can now directly enter into an agreement with private property owners without seeking permission from any government authority. The licensees, however, will be required to give prior intimation and structural suitability certificate to the concerned authorities.
By bringing in some of the much-awaited amendments to the RoW rules, the government has made it easier for telecom operators to deploy the infrastructure required to support the roll-out of 5G services. The amended rules will bring down the costs of new infrastructure installations and also pave the way for the deployment of 5G small cells on the existing street infrastructure. However, successful implementation of these rules will hinge on active cooperation from the state authorities as well as local bodies. There is now an increasing need for governments to treat telecom equipment as critical infrastructure. Effective implementation of the amended RoW policy is essential to facilitate the expansion of 5G services across the country.