Sanjay Shamrao Dhotre, Union Minister of State for Communications, Education and Electronics and Information technology

The telecom sector has emerged as a torchbearer for the country’s digital economy, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government too has been playing a pivotal role by supporting the sector through various policy initiatives during this crisis. Together, these initiatives as well as efforts by telecom stakeholders are helping to shape India’s digital trajectory. During the past few months, Sanjay Shamrao Dhotre, Union Minister of State for Education, Communications, and Electronics & Information Technology, has spoken extensively about the country’s ongoing digital transformation, the role that the telecom sector is playing in this transformation and the emergence of new technologies such as 5G. Edited excerpts from his speeches at various industry events…

Telecom infrastructure development

The government has taken several policy initiatives to facilitate infrastructure growth. These include permitting trading, sharing and liberalisation of spectrum, as well as sharing of passive and active infrastructure; notification of the Right of Way (RoW) Rules, 2016; and making available government land/buildings for the installation of towers.

These key policy reforms and initiatives in the sector have facilitated investment and the creation of infrastructure. This has led to social and economic growth, improved digital connectivity, near universal coverage of telecom services, and spectrum availability.

Base transceiver stations have seen a staggering growth of 220 per cent since 2014. Further, broadband penetration has increased manyfold. Data and smartphones have become cheaper, leading to massive data consumption and the opening up of new opportunities in the field of data analytics.

Digital adoption amidst Covid-19

The sector has been a torchbearer for the country and deserves praise for its relentless services throughout the pandemic. Despite the surge in data during the lockdown, the networks remained resilient. Further, telecom service providers (TSPs) helped the government in containing the Covid-19 pandemic. A lot was done to generate awareness about Covid-19, by conveying messages through a ringback tone. The government appreciates the role played by TSPs in facilitating connectivity and enabling Covid-19 quarantine alert, etc.

There was an increase of about 30 per cent in internet consumption, with many subscribers upgrading their broadband plans to meet the higher data requirements during this period. The government’s Digital India initiative built on the back of the Aadhaar Jan Dhan Yojna and mobile connectivity helped drive the use of digital payments. Meanwhile, with schools closed across the country, technology and connectivity played a significant role in delivering online education. All of this was enabled through a robust collaboration of technology and communication.

Converting challenges into opportunities

While Covid-19 has posed many challenges, the telecom industry has proved its mettle by supporting the economy in a big way. We should look to turn these challenges into opportunities. Work-from-home and online education have been adopted in a massive way. This has increased the requirement of reliable, affordable and quality internet in every corner of the country, including in rural areas. The demand for digital gadgets has also increased. The government is also continuously supporting this sector. The new guidelines for other service providers (OSPs) have eliminated the registration requirement for OSPs. This would boost the IT/ITeS and business process outsourcing  industries across India.

Scaling up broadband connectivity

Reforms are being made to address the digital divide by extending inclusive internet access to every Indian. Under the visionary and dynamic leadership of our prime minister, the government has put considerable emphasis on the growth of the internet and broadband in the country as a part of its Digital India campaign. The mobile phone has emerged as the main platform for internet access in India, bringing connectivity to many previously unconnected populations and giving rise to technological innovations, a start-up culture and entrepreneurship.

Going forward, the rising adoption of wireless broadband will be the driving force of the Indian economy. Wireless broadband adoption would increase on the back of the rapidly growing data consumption and the deployment of necessary technologies by service providers. This can be the driving force of the economy. The rising consumption of data by consumers has also created opportunities for the government to reach out to weaker and marginalised groups, and enable social progress by providing services that were previously not feasible. Tapping into these opportunities can unlock the next phase of growth for the Indian economy.

The recently launched National Broadband Mission (NBM) is of utmost importance for fulfilling the aim of digitalising India. The NBM has been structured around the three principles of universality, affordability and quality. Its key objectives are providing broadband access to all villages by 2022; facilitating universal and equitable access to broadband services across the country, especially in rural and remote areas; laying an incremental 3 million route km of optic fibre cable and increasing tower density from 0.42 to 1 tower per 1,000 population by 2024. This is the age of disruptive technology and the NBM will enable India to harness this opportunity. For the success of this mission, it is important that the RoW Rules are implemented uniformly across the states. To this end, the central government is working with all the state governments and local bodies.

Thrust on indigenous manufacturing

The government has attached high priority to the development of software products, and telecom and electronics hardware manufacturing. Atmanirbhar Bharat, Make in India and Make for the World are our mantras.

India has emerged as the second largest manufacturer of mobile phones in the world. It is also one of the biggest mobile markets in the world. Today, mobile telephony has reached all corners of the country. The youth of the country have used this opportunity to start the most vibrant start-up ecosystem in the world and the number of unicorns has grown sharply.

Role of digital technologies

Digital technologies are considered necessary instruments for improving the level of participation and engagement of citizens in societal activities. These technologies offer governments the possibility to streamline and transform their communication processes and relationship with citizens, businesses and other non-government actors through multiple digital channels.

We are at an interesting juncture in the technology journey. With the emergence of futuristic technologies, such as 5G and internet of things, India is gearing up to adopt the new digital future.

Moving towards the 5G era

The government is creating an enabling framework for the deployment of affordable and secure 5G services in the country. It is working in collaboration with academia, industry and start-ups in the areas of innovation, research and development, as well as intellectual property rights generation. There is a need for robust investments by the industry in 5G innovation start-ups and 5G products that can create India-specific patents. As for spectrum allocation, the airwaves acquired through auctions held from time to time are permitted to be used in a technologically agnostic manner. Successful bidders in the spectrum auctions can deploy mobile services using any technology, including 5G.

5G technology, with its enormous capabilities, will impact every area of industry, society and governance. The Department of Telecommunications  is working with different ministries to create India-specific use cases in areas such as education, healthcare and public safety.

The government is doing its part to improve ease of doing business and ensure fair competition in the telecom sector. However, states also need to make 5G a priority since this technology will comprise the infrastructure of the future.

5G is expected to be introduced gradually in India and advance to a full range of services as the ecosystem and the demand for these services grow. Indian start-ups, small and medium enterprises, and software service companies are all stakeholders in this digital space and have a window of opportunity to work in the 5G ecosystem. TSPs, original equipment manufacturers and telecom sector stakeholders have an important role to play in the 5G era.