The Indian telecom infrastructure space has undergone significant transformation and witnessed exponential growth, primarily on account of affordable tariffs, wider availability, mobile number portability (MNP), expanding 4G and 5G coverage, evolving consumption patterns of subscribers, government initiatives to bolster India’s digital ecosystem and a conducive regulatory environment. As per government data, the number of base transceiver stations grew by almost 200 per cent from 800,000 in 2014 to 2,398,000 in 2022, while towers grew by 65 per cent from 400,000 to 740,000 during the same period. Moreover, under the Prime Minister’s Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) framework, the total number of hotspots have reached 114,069 as of September 2022.
In a bid to facilitate smooth and efficient deployment of digital communications infrastructure across the country, the government launched the Gati Shakti Sanchar portal for centralised right-of-way (RoW) approvals. The portal, which is now functional with all 36 states/union territories on board, is also integrated with the Ministry of Railways, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) and the Ministry of Defence. The government is also implementing a Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan for the north-eastern region (NER). Under this scheme, 2G mobile connectivity will be provided by setting up 2,004 towers in the uncovered villages and along the national highways of Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in the NER. Smart cities are another key focus area for the government.
A look at the key developments under various government initiatives that are shaping the telecom infrastructure sector, and the way forward…
A notable development on the policy front was the launch of the draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022. The Ministry of Communications initiated a public consultative process to develop a modern and future-ready legal framework. The bill, which is currently in the consultation process, includes certain provisions related to infrastructure. For one, it has made noteworthy and useful clarifications on the RoW framework. The proposed regulatory framework facilitates RoW for any “facility provider” building telecom infrastructure. A facility provider includes any licensee or registered entity, including any contractor, subcontractor or agent working for the centre or for a licensee.
Apart from creating a conducive policy environment, the 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, 184,399 gram panchayats (GPs) have been made service-ready with broadband infrastructure as of November 28, 2022. Under the project, 600,898 km of optical fibre cable (OFC) has been laid as of November 2022. The number of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connections has also grown significantly. In September 2022, India hit a 13-month-high fixed broadband median download speed of 48.78 Mbps.
In a major move, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) scrapped mandatory testing for certain broadband equipment including routers, cordless phones, transmission terminal equipment and local area network switches and moved these products to a self-certification regime in a bid to speed up broadband penetration in the country.
Among operators, Bharti Airtel launched its FTTH broadband service – Airtel Xstream Fibre – in Ladakh and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, with the aim of increasing broadband penetration along border areas. The RailTel Corporation of India has achieved the milestone of 100,000 FTTH broadband internet users in Tamil Nadu. Also, the company allowed customers access to its retail broadband service, RailWire, to use broadband plans on RailTel’s Wi-Fi network across 6,105 railway stations in the country without the need to buy prepaid Wi-Fi plans.
In addition to easing RoW, the government issued guidelines to look into the installation of mobile phone towers at and near airports. As per the guidelines, applications for approvals pending with the Airports Authority of India and the Joint Communications and Electronic Staff would be deemed cleared if they are not considered within 30 days from the date of filing. Additionally, in November 2022, DoT amended the scope of infrastructure providers Category I registrations. Earlier, sharing of assets such as dark fibre, RoW, duct space and mobile towers of telecom infrastructure companies was allowed on mutually agreed terms and conditions. In December 2022, the Ministry of Railways allowed private companies to install towers on land owned by Indian Railways.
Meanwhile, in a bid to improve the quality of the communication network and facilitate 5G roll-out across defence land, the Ministry of Defence revised its 2018 rulebook to allow the installation of telecom infrastructure. Under the revised rules, cantonment boards and station headquarters will have the authority to approve, within a deadline, the installation of telecom infrastructure on defence land.
To enable speedy deployment and achieve greater coverage, the government has introduced wireless licensing reforms under which 5G cells will be deployed on existing street furniture such as street lights and electricity poles. Additionally, the requirement for a formal application to the Standing Advisory Committee on Radio Frequency Allocation for such cases has been done away with. Under the reform initiatives, clearances for such cases have been replaced with a simple registration, which can be downloaded instantly, and the processing fee too has been reduced by 90 per cent.
Further, the Smart Cities Mission, which envisions developing an area within the cities as model areas based on an area development plan, is likely to conclude by 2023. According to government data, nearly 88 per cent of the funds given by the centre for smart city projects have been utilised. Work orders have been issued for 7,738 projects worth Rs 1.8 trillion, of which 4,987 projects worth Rs 924.39 billion have been completed as of December 2, 2022. Meanwhile, as of February 20, 2023, 5,366 of the total 7,807 projects have been completed under the Smart Cities Mission.
The state governments too have stepped up their efforts to facilitate the creation of digital infrastructure and ensure better network connectivity. Several state governments have rolled out their own schemes and policies to accelerate the deployment of communications infrastructure in their states. For instance, Tamil Nadu has formulated the Tamil Nadu Telecom Infrastructure Policy, 2022, which is aimed at developing a robust and secure state-of-the-art telecommunications network that will provide seamless coverage by easing the process of application, approval and installation of telecom infrastructure. These by-laws are applicable to all city areas, municipal councils, town municipal councils, town panchayats, etc. and include telecom towers and OFC (aerial and underground).
Meanwhile, the Karnataka government has notified its RoW policy in line with that of the central government. The Rajasthan government has issued an order to further reduce the charges for laying aerial OFC to Rs 1,000 per pole annually, Rs 2,000 per manhole per chamber at the district headquarters and Rs 1,000 per manhole per chamber in other towns, making the roll-out of OFC more cost effective for the future. The governments of Rajasthan, Punjab and Kerala have constituted task forces to oversee the use of government infrastructure/street furniture for rolling out 5G networks and issue necessary amendments. Besides, Gujarat has notified its telecom infrastructure policy. As per the policy, the one-time fee to meet administrative expenses for the installation of telecom towers is Rs 10,000 per application, and for the deployment of OFC it is Rs 1,000 per kilometre of OFC (underground and overground).
Recently, the Maharashtra government announced the Telecommunications Infrastructure Guidelines for Urban Local Bodies, 2022 to provide coverage and increase the teledensity in urban areas. The guidelines cover overground and underground telecom infrastructure such as telecommunications infrastructure towers, ground-based towers, rooftop towers, rooftop poles, cell phone towers, transmission towers, cells on wheels, in-building solutions and microcells. Meanwhile, in Del-hi, the RoW policy for digitalisation, telephony and smooth roll-out of 5G services has been approved.
To sum up
Going forward, as the industry continues to step up its investment in telecom infrastructure to improve network quality and roll out new technologies, a conducive and supportive policy environment at the central and state levels will go a long way in developing a robust communications infrastructure backbone in the country.