The Indian telecom market is witnessing unprecedented growth in data consumption. In order to sustain this increase in data uptake and support the proliferation of next-generation technologies such as 5G, internet of things and artificial intelligence, there is a need to ramp up the telecom infrastructure in parallel. More­over, the country’s communications infrastructure needs to be expanded in order to ensure the success of government prog­rammes such as Digital India and the Smart Cities Mission.

Both the central and state governments have launched a slew of schemes to create a conducive policy environment for encouraging investments in the telecom infrastr­ucture space. As part of the National Bro­adband Mission, the central government is working to provide broadband access to all villages by 2022. The government has also set a target of creating 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots by 2022, laying an incremental 3 million route km of optical fibre cable (OFC) and increasing the tower density from 0.42 tower per 1,000 of population to 1 tower per 1,000 of population by 2024. It is also working with the state governments to develop innovative implementation models for facilitating right-of-way (RoW) approvals for telecom towers and OFC. Meanwhile, several state and local governments have come up with their own policy initiatives to give a leg-up to the development of telecom infrastructure in their respective jurisdictions.

Policy push from the central government

The National Digital Communications Policy released by the government in 2018 lays a special emphasis on the telecom infrastructure sector. In view of the long-standing demand of industry stakeholders, the policy has proposed to accord critical and essential infrastructure status to the telecom infrastructure industry, thereby bringing communications infrastructure at par with other connectivity infrastructure such as roads and railways. In order to facilitate the installation of mobile towers, the policy proposes to extend the current incentives and exemptions for the construction of telecom towers and also grant accelerated RoW permissions for telecom towers on the government premises. The policy also proposes to accord the status of public utility to OFCs and devise new collaboration models involving states, local bodies and the private sector for the provision of shared duct infrastructure in municipalities, rural areas and national highways.

Apart from creating a conducive policy environment, the central government has initiated several schemes to help expand the country’s telecom infrastructure. As part of the BharatNet project, which aims to provide broadband connectivity to rural and remote areas of the country, the government has laid over 0.56 million km of OFC as of end February 2022. Further, the government has installed Wi-Fi hotspots in 104,288 gram panchayats and provided 213,834 fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connections using the BharatNet network as of end February 2022.

The development of a robust telecom infrastructure in the country is also a key thrust area of the PM GatiShakti National Master Plan, a Rs 100 trillion pan-Indian programme that aims to enhance multi-modal connectivity in the country, with a view to reducing logistics costs and increasing the cargo handling capacity. The master plan seeks to enhance cross-sector collaboration with other utilities such as water, gas, electricity, broadcasting and railways for sharing infrastructure such as common ducts for laying telecom cables and advocates a uniform policy for fees and procedure in all states and union territories and central ministries/departments for telecom RoW. Under the initiative, the government has also launched the GatiShakti Sanchar portal for enabling centralised RoW approvals. The portal allows both telecom service providers as well as infrastructure providers to apply to relevant authorities (central government/state govern­ment/ local bodies) for RoW permissions to lay OFC and for the installation of telecom towers. To ensure effective monitoring of RoW applications across the country, the portal features a dashboard showing the state- and district-wise pendency status of requests made by telecom operators and infrastructure players.

In order to boost the deployment of public Wi-Fi hotspots in the country, the government has been implementing the Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) scheme that encourages the deployment of public Wi-Fi networks by PDOA (public data office aggregators) to provide public Wi-Fi services through public data offices (PDOs). PDOs are exempted from any kind of licence requirements from the Department of Telecommunications for providing internet services through these public Wi-Fi networks. In May 2022, RailTel launched PM-WANI-based access to its public Wi-Fi services across 100 railway stations, encompassing 2,384 Wi-Fi hotspots in 22 states. According to RailTel, the PM-WANI-based access will facilitate ease of use of Wi-Fi services through a one-time know-your-customer (KYC)-based authentication, instead of the earlier one-time password-based authentication. RailTel plans to extend PM-WANI-based access to its public Wi-Fi services to all 6,102 railway stations (where its Wi-Fi facility is already available) in a phased manner, by the end of June 2022. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited is also aiming to migrate 30,000 of its Wi-Fi hotspots to the PM-WANI framework by end-June 2022.

States’ initiatives to expand the telecom infrastructure

Several state governments have also rolled out their own schemes and policies to accelerate the deployment of communications infrastructure in their states. The Gujarat government has recently notified the Telecom Infrastructure Policy, 2022, which prescribes a one-time nominal fee of Rs 10,000 per application to meet administrative expenses for the installation of telecom towers, while fixing Rs 1,000 per km for laying OFC – both underground as well as overground. Besides, the policy mandates that the concerned au­thorities have to decide on the RoW applications within a time frame of 60 days, beyond which applications would be treated as approved. The policy en­courages the deployment of towers, underground OFC, aerial OFC, cells-on-wheels, micro sites, small cells and in-building solutions, and also supports the regularisation of the existing telecom infrastructure to improve digital connectivity across the state.

The Goa government has also announced fresh incentives for telecom companies to set up towers and related infrastructure in the state. The government has significantly slashed the fee charged from infrastructure players for setting up and operating towers in rural areas, with new rules mandating a payment of only 10 per cent of the monthly rent for a period of five years and 25 per cent of the rentals after the first five-year period to the government. The new rules also facilitate a quick processing of applications for setting up mobile towers on government property.

In January 2022, Tamil Nadu released its Telecom Infrastructure Policy, 2022, aiming at developing a robust and secure state-of-the-art telecommunication network, which would provide a seamless coverage, by easing the process of application, approval and installation of the telecom infrastructure. As per the state government, the policy is in line with the Indian Tele­graph Right of Way Rules, 2016 and is applicable to all existing and future telecom infrastructure. Meanwhile, The Tamil Nadu government has commenced the work to lay OFC for the BharatNet project in the state. The project aims to provide a minimum scalable bandwidth of 1 Gbps to all 12,525 village panchayats in the state at an estimated cost of Rs 16.28 billion. The state government has also selected system integrators and third-party agencies for the project’s implementation.

In February 2022, the Rajasthan government reduced charges for laying OFC to Rs 1,000 per pole annually, Rs 2,000 per manhole per chamber at district headquarters and Rs 1,000 per manhole per chamber in other towns, making OFC roll-out more cost-effective for the future. Among local bodies, the North Delhi Municipal Corpo­ration has reduced tower installation fees by about 40 per cent in order to increase cell phone network connectivity in its areas. Meanwhile, Gurugram is planning to soon allow telecom companies to set up mobile phone towers on government buildings and land across the city.

Conclusion

Policy uncertainty has been one of the major issues facing the telecom infrastructure industry for the past several years. However, both the central and state governments are now taking concerted measures to address challenges faced by the industry, particularly those re­lated to securing RoW approvals. Go­ing forward, as the industry continues to step up its investment in telecom infrastructure to improve network quality and support, the roll-out of new technologies, a conducive and supportive policy environment by the central and state governments will go a long way in developing a robust communications infrastructure backbone in the country. S