T.R. Dua, director general, Tower and Infrastructure Providers’ Association (TAIPA)

The telecom sector has witnessed unprecedented growth on the back of a robust telecom infrastructure landscape. As the sector gears up for a digital revolution driven by data services, the telecom infrastructure industry will play an important role in bringing seamless connectivity to over 1 billion users in the country. T.R. Dua, director general, Tower and Infrastructure Providers’ Association (TAIPA), talks about the key trends in the industry, the major challenges and the way forward…

How has the telecom infrastructure industry evolved over the years? What are the key ongoing trends?

The tower industry has played a significant role in expanding affordable telephony across the country. The concept of tower sharing has been critical for the growth of the industry and has ushered in several advantages in terms of cost economics, aesthetics, service access, safety and quality of service.

The key trends in the industry are:

  • Small cells/In-building solutions (IBSs): The deployment of IBS and microcells for enhancing capacity will drive significant demand for telecom infrastructure.
  • Network coverage: The roll-out of 3G sites beyond cities and 4G network ex­pan­sion by all major operators will be a key driver.
  • Fiberisation: Only 10-15 per cent of the sites in India have optic fibre connectivity.
  • Public sector investment: The Smart Cities and Digital India initiatives are a major driving force. BharatNet too will be a key enabler for investments in fibre infrastructure and broadband.

What is the average level of tenancies across the industry? Do you see this figure changing in the coming years?

There are currently more than 400,000 towers in India, which are expected to increase to more than half a million by 2020. Further, on the back of aggressive 3G and 4G expansion, the industry may witness a significant rise in the number of tenancies, with the tenancy ratio expected to increase to 2.48 by 2020. Telecom towers are likely to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 3-5 per cent over the next four to five years.

What is your view on the call drop and service quality issue?

One of the key reasons for call drops is the unavailability of new sites for the installation of mobile towers due to several restrictive conditions imposed by the authorities. In addition, shutting down op­e­rational cell sites leads to coverage gaps, network congestion and poor quality of service. Resident welfare associations and other civic bodies restrict tower installations in residential areas due to the perceived health hazards from electromagnetic field (EMF) radiations, which is contrary to the research findings of leading health organisations. To this end, the industry has initiated the installation of pole-sites, micro-BTSs, IBS, etc. to enhance coverage in key locations. Meanwhile, the Department of Tele­­com­mu­nications has been conducting EMF awareness programmes across the country to allay the concerns regarding tower emissions.

What are the key challenges faced by telecom infrastructure companies?

The major challenges faced by telecom in­fra­­structure companies include restrictions on the location of cell sites, multiple levies, multiplicity of policies, delays in clear­­ances, lack of a single-window clearance mechanism, and the need for multiple no-objection certificates from various de­partments. In addition, there is an alleged fear of EMF emissions, difficulty in new site acquisitions, retrospective implementation of state-specific tower policies, problems in obtaining right-of-way clearance and erratic/non-availability of power supply.

How has been the industry’s experience with the Renewable Energy Service Company (RESCO) model for energy management at tower sites?

The RESCO model came into existence with the objective of utilising renewable energy technologies to run telecom towers. Under this model, a RESCO sets up renewable energy-based power plants near telecom towers and power is supplied to them at a pre-determined cost on a pay-per-use basis or on a pre-agreed formula. The power generated by the RESCO is off-grid and any additional power generated can be sold to the nearby community.

The telecom industry has taken several initiatives such as the deployment of diesel-free sites, diesel generator sets with variable load capacity, power control units, free cooling units and energy efficient storage technologies to avoid its dependence on diesel.

What is your outlook for the industry over the next two to three years?

India is set to witness a digital revolution, which will depend on an efficient and robust mobile backhaul network. Further, the success of the government’s flagship programmes like Digital India, Smart Cities and right to broadband depends on strong telecom infrastructure. These initiatives will open up a gamut of opportunities for infrastructure providers in areas such as IBS, fiberisation of backhaul networks, Wi-Fi hotspots and micro-sites.