The Indian telecom tower industry has witnessed significant growth in the past few years, aided by escalation in subscriber density and surge in data uptake. The number of telecom towers in the country has quadrupled from 100,000 in 2006 to 420,000 in 2016. Despite this, the installed tower infrastructure in the country is way less than that required to ensure ubiquitous connectivity and a seamless user experience.

A significant reason for the shortfall is the resistance by the general public and local authorities to the installation of mobile towers. The public continues to be wary about the electromagnetic field radiation (EMF) emanating from towers despite the fact that India has one of the most stringent EMF standards in the world. Meanwhile, there have been several instances of sealing of towers by municipal authorities over issues related to the legality of installations, licence fees, etc.

A number of positive developments are expected to ease this situation. The De­partment of Telecommunications (DoT) has issued the much-awaited right-of-way rules, laying down a framework to provide approvals for tower installations and settle disputes in a time-bound manner, as well as improve the coordination between telecom companies and government authorities. DoT has also been organising countrywide EMF awareness programmes to address and allay the concerns of people regarding tower radiations. Moreover, the government authorities have been asked to allow the installation of telecom towers on their premises.

Next-gen Sites

Telecom tower companies, too, on their part are taking steps to reduce public resistance to the deployment of tower infrastructure. An innovative concept that is gaining traction in this regard is that of next generation (next-gen) sites. These are multi-functional towers that are aesthetic and merge well with the cityscape and location-specific architecture, have 80-90 per cent lower footprint and ensure diesel-free power back-up. These towers can be in the form of camouflaged poles, camouflaged compact solutions, camouflaged palm trees, street furniture sites or multi-utility poles. These solutions have been designed to enable easier deployment in residential, industrial, commercial and public spaces, as well as enhance the possibility of installing towers at very critical sites in important city hubs.

Next-gen sites are designed to maintain zero noise and visual pollution, and require low site construction time, thus causing minimum inconvenience to the general public. The height of these towers range between 3 metres and 30 metres, and the design is such that the towers can safely withstand various service loads and outdoor weather conditions. The core structure of the tower or monopole is constructed from high-tensile steel sections, which are weather-protected owing to hot dipped galvanisation. Special architectural treatment is given over and above the core structure to create heritage or contemporary aesthetics with different colour schemes and exterior building material. On the top, radio antennas are concealed with radio friendly camouflaging material. In addition, the telecom equipment is placed around the monopole in a perforated aesthetic equipment enclosure.

Deployment status

The country’s largest telecom tower company, Indus Towers, has already deployed over 100 such sites across many cities including Delhi, the National Capital Region, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Mysuru, Chennai, Chandigarh, Lucknow and Meerut. The company has invested around Rs 0.25 billion in setting up these next-gen mobile towers. According to Indus, these sites are future-ready for projects like the Smart Cities Mission, and can be used for hosting public services like street lighting, surveillance cameras and Wi-Fi services.

Over the next one year, Indus Towers plans to set up over 500 such modern mo­bile towers in the 15 circles, covering 50 cities, where it operates at an investment of around Rs 1 billion.

Meanwhile, state-run telecom operator Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited is plan­ning to install 50 zero-base mobile to­wers, which are better looking and multi-functional. Zero base implies that the tower can be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot, street light and camera with the radio units hidden inside the pole or underneath. BSNL is loo­king to partner with equipment vendors like Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei and ZTE for the installation of these zero-base towers.

The operator plans to initially deploy 50 such towers to demonstrate how comm­unication can be delivered along with good aesthetics and good looking features. Eventually, it will replace all the towers that are perceived to be spoiling the skyline with good camouflaged eye-soothing towers.

The way forward for tower aesthetics

Over the next few years, data services will continue to be the key growth driver for the Indian telecom industry with an increased uptake of technologies such as 3G, 4G, machine-to-machine communications and internet of things. As per a Microsoft re­port, India will have nearly 700 million internet subscribers by 2025. Further, it is projected that the mobile traffic will grow twelve-fold in 2020 from the present levels, with data consumption increasing from 148.9 petabytes per month in 2015 to 1.7 exabytes per month in 2020.

This anticipated increase in data requirements means that there will be an equivalent requirement for additional tower sites to avoid the existing networks from being strained.

“We believe in a design-thinking approach and always try to develop a solution based on customer needs. The roll-out of next-gen sites is a great step in this direction. Indus Towers will continue to build digital highways and play a pivotal role in the government’s focus areas such as the Smart Cities Mission and Digital India.” Bimal Dayal, Chief Executive Officer, Indus Towers

In this context, aesthetically designed tower sites can emerge as one of the possible solutions to increase the deployment of mobile towers in the country, particularly at sites that were earlier deemed unviable for putting up towers. Although the cost of these towers is a little higher than the regular ones, like active infrastructure, the cost can be shared among the operators and the sites can look much more appealing and aesthetic.

Puneet Kumar Arora (The pictures carried in the article are of Indus Towers’ sites.)