Right of way (RoW) continues to be the biggest impediment in the roll-out of optic fibre cable (OFC) networks in India. Over the years, telcos have continued to struggle with enhancing their fibre footprint owing to complicated, cumbersome and costly RoW procedures that vary widely across states.

The task of approaching multiple authorities for clearances and approvals for digging roads, laying fibre and reinstating infrastructure can be quite challenging. Add to this the exorbitant and arbitrary charges imposed by various municipalities and state bodies that often look at RoW levies as a source of quick revenue, and the business viability of OFC installation becomes bleak. While typically, these charges range from Rs 0.1 million to about Rs 0.5 million per km, they can run as high as Rs 15 million for just a km in a city like Mumbai. In certain cases, the charges are so steep that the cost of OFC deployment turns out to be more than the cost of the OFC itself. Consequently, fibre roll-outs by the industry have progressed at a snail’s pace, which is evident from the country’s fibre per capita, which is amongst the lowest in the world.

The government, on its part, had notified RoW rules in 2016 in a bid to streamline the process. While the rules were expected to be a game changer for the industry at the time of the notification, their implementation has been extremely disappointing. The rules required the states to serve as facilitators and formulate their own policies modelled on the central guidelines. Two and half years down the line, only 13 states have telecom infrastructure policies that are aligned with the central rules. Others are still contemplating how to move forward.

But the industry is clearly running out of time. The targets set under the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018 will require India’s fibre footprint to more than double by 2022. In other words, the industry will have to deploy as much OFC network in the next three years as it had done in the last two decades, or some more.

In such a scenario, it becomes imperative that the government and the industry come together and collaborate on ways, conventional and new, to enhance the country’s fibre footprint.

A look at some of the areas that can be explored…

Stricter implementation of RoW rules

The support of the state governments is indispensable to the successful implementation of the rules. There is an urgent need for uniform and reasonable RoW policies that promise timely approvals and rational levies across states.

Further, the RoW rules must be strengthened with specific cut-off dates and penalties. A high-level nodal officer must be appointed to ensure proper monitoring of down-the-line implementation of state policies. The state governments should be prohibited from taking any coercive action against telecom infrastructure providers without prior approval from the state nodal authority. The Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association (TAIPA) has also sought the abolition of property and other taxes that are not in sync with the central government rules and are being imposed in different states.

NDCP 2018 mentions the creation of a National Fibre Authority that would be instrumental in creating a uniform framework for time-bound approvals and rational RoW costs. The framework should encourage the state governments to look at RoW approvals as an enabler of revenues rather than as revenue itself.

The government is also working on a broadband index for the states, wherein their performance would be compared on different parameters. Recently, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) signed an MoU with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) to develop this index. The index would appraise the condition of the underlying digital infrastructure and related factors at the state/union territory level. This is a step in the right direction and must include parameters such as the level of digital infrastructure roll-out, ease of approval processes and RoW charges. The index will help the government in identifying the best performing and the laggard states, and accordingly incentivising or penalising them.

Fibre sharing

Sharing of fibre among telcos will result in a reasonable return on capital while bringing down the cost of deployment, easing RoW requirements and avoiding infrastructure duplication. Having tasted success with tower sharing, replicating it in the fibre ecosystem should not be a problem for Indian telecom players. “Ten years ago, the tower sharing model was initiated in a big way and today, telcos install very few new towers; the first choice is always to share a tower,” says Sairam Prasad, president, field operations, Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited. The industry is already moving towards a focused approach, wherein telcos are hiving off their fibre assets in separate entities. These entities may later be converted into independent agencies that can cater to multiple telcos. Alternatively, the industry may see the emergence of new entities or IP-1s that will take up the role of neutral fibrecos.

Dig once, common ducts and utility corridors

Every establishment requires a cable for one purpose or the other, and digging roads and disrupting road infrastructure every time is not the best approach. Ducts (dedicated to OFC or common for multiple utilities) should be constructed in every city so that a cable can be simply pulled through it as and when required.

In May 2017, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had floated the idea of a common duct to reduce operator costs and overcome RoW challenges. It envisaged the laying of common OFC under the ground that could be used for providing multiple services such as electricity, cable TV and home broadband internet. However, after meandering for years, concrete action on this is still missing. Last year, in November 2018, TAIPA also held discussions with TRAI for rolling out pilot projects for common ducts. Some pilots were proposed thereafter, but the industry is still awaiting policy direction in this regard.

Earlier, in January 2017, DoT had also proposed creating a conduit for utility cables, including OFC, as a part of the road and national highways design. The move was aimed at avoiding frequent damage to optic fibre cables during road construction and widening. This would be a win-win situation as the corporation constructing the utility duct could charge track rent from all beneficiaries including telecom companies. And telecom service providers would not have to spend money on digging up or restoring roads.

DoT had put forth this proposal to the states, the Ministry of Rural Development and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH). But the idea has been stuck in a limbo. MoRTH and DoT are, reportedly, still in talks to formulate a set of common rules to address RoW bottlenecks and are considering pre-built common ducts in order to deploy OFC alongside the national highways.

The government needs to mandate that all major infrastructure projects include a clause in their architectural design requirements to ensure the provision of a utility duct for laying OFC. According to the US-based Fiber Broadband Association, mandating conduits amortises the cost of conduit construction across all telecom service providers that later use it. This can reduce deployment costs while adding less than 1 per cent to the cost of road construction. A study by the US Government Accountability Office points out that “dig once” policies can reduce the cost of deploying fibre on highways in urban areas by 25-33 per cent, and by roughly 16 per cent in rural areas.

The government can also make it mandatory to have utility corridors while designing a road stretch. A utility corridor is a space allocated along a road, bridge or any such civil engineering structure through which power cables, telephone cables, water pipelines, gas pipelines, etc. can pass. It is so designed that even if there are changes in the road structure, the space on the corridor remains unaffected, thus ensuring there is no damage to the cables and pipelines.

Utility corridors will, moreover, be necessary for smart cities, which focus on sustainability. Many smart cities, like those in Odisha and Chhattisgarh, are focusing on developing such conduits.

Leveraging utility infrastructure

Leveraging the vast existing utility infrastructure can be one quick fix solution to the industry’s RoW woes. Utilities across the power and gas sectors that are deploying fibre networks can be encouraged to operate as neutral wholesale providers for TSPs. This will help telcos overcome several constraints related to RoW and civil works, particularly in public areas. Also, telcos can avoid upfront investments on fibre deployment.

India has more than 10 million ckt. km of power transmission and distribution lines connecting the remotest corners of the country. “Secured substations, continuous power supply, optical ground wire (OPGW) fibre running on top of extra-high voltage lines and existing RoW lead to uninterrupted, sabotage-free, reliable and secure network availability,” notes N.K. Panda, head, convergence business, Sterlite Power.

Aerial OFC can be laid across electricity poles and be leased to telecom service providers, significantly enhancing their last-mile reach or creating alternative paths. The government had suggested this model of OFC deployment under Phase II of the BharatNet project to expedite implementation. As per Bharat Broadband Network Limited, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Tamil Nadu have opted for this model. In Andhra Pradesh, work started in 2018 while Odisha announced, in February 2019, that it is deploying aerial OFC alongside the 33 kV, 11 kV and LT electrical lines of Odisha Power Transmission Corporation Limited from the block to the gram panchayat. In Tamil Nadu, the detailed project report is still awaiting approval.

Recently, in June 2019, the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission allowed state-owned transmission utility Power Grid Corporation of India to offer towers to telecom companies for BTS installation. A similar mandate for sharing the OPGW network owned by the majority of state power companies can help address the country’s OFC deficit. It could also open up a new revenue source for power discoms and transcos.

Over the years, gas utilities such as GailTel have also been laying OFC in the same trench as a gas pipeline. This OFC has been used primarily to meet their own communication requirements, such as real-time monitoring of pipes for leakage, but could be monetised by leasing it to telecom players. For instance, Bombay Gas is using its pipeline network (of around 400 km) to lay OFC that can offer seamless connectivity and broadband coverage. It counts top incumbents Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea among its customers. In fact, RailTel owns exclusive RoW along 65,000 route km, connecting over 7,500 stations. It has developed a reliable and secure OFC network along the railway tracks, which can be leased to TSPs and ISPs, serving as an additional income source.

The way forward

As the country steps into the digital era, the need for a robust and ubiquitous OFC network cannot be overstated. India’s digital future hinges on fibre connectivity, which will form the backbone of government programmes such as Digital India, Broadband for All and the Smart Cities Mission. However, to achieve widespread fibre penetration, long-brewing industry issues around RoW need to be addressed at the earliest.

In fact, a review of the RoW scenario assumes greater significance in light of the government’s focus on fibre in the NDCP 2018. Policy objectives such as fibre first, increase in site fiberisation, higher penetration of wireline home broadband would all require massive fibre roll-outs. OFC is also critical for realising the country’s ambitious 5G plans.

A collaborative approach among the centre, states and local bodies on RoW, the standardisation of costs and timelines, and streamlining of approvals are the key to fulfilling India’s digital aspirations.

Akanksha Mahajan Marwah