The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has released recommendations on improving telecom coverage and backhaul infrastructure in far-flung areas of Ladakh.
TRAI stated that recent media reports have highlighted the challenges faced by the people living near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in accessing high-speed internet, which is critical for pursuing online education and accessing digital banking. Furthermore, many remote areas in Ladakh lack mobile towers, resulting in network issues, particularly for those residing near the LAC and the Line of Control (LoC). As these areas are of strategic importance, mobile connectivity is crucial for ensuring the safety of the region by facilitating round-the-clock communication to the security forces deployed in these regions.
To this end, TRAI obtained the current status of mobile network coverage and backhaul infrastructure layout data in Ladakh from operating telecom service providers (TSPs), as well as details of ongoing Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) sponsored telecom projects and optical ground wire (OPGW) infrastructure availability from power distribution companies (DISCOMs). Based on the gap analysis and evaluation of the government-sponsored USOF schemes, TRAI has come up with recommendations for improving telecom coverage and backhaul infrastructure in far-flung areas of Ladakh.
The salient points of these recommendations are as follows:-
- There are three villages in Ladakh that neither have any coverage nor were included in the ongoing schemes. During discussions with the authority, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has indicated that these villages will be included under the ‘saturation of 4G mobile services’ project. However, USOF must ensure the inclusion of the three uncovered villages of Ladakh, under the saturation of 4G mobile services project.
- There are 19 villages in Ladakh which neither have 4G coverage nor are they included in the ongoing schemes for providing 4G coverage. The capex and opex to be incurred for upgrading the existing non-4G based cellular mobile infrastructure at these 19 villages should be funded by the government through USOF. In 12 out of these 19 villages, the authority recommends that the very small aperture terminal (VSAT) connectivity provided under BharatNet can also double as backhaul for 4G connectivity. In the remaining seven uncovered villages, VSAT connectivity on shared basis should be considered till connectivity on optical fibre cable (OFC) media is extended to these villages.
- All operating TSPs in Ladakh must provide fair and non-discriminatory access to their spare backhaul transmission media resource capacity through lease/rent or on mutually agreeable terms and conditions, to other TSP/internet service providers. A committee of TERM field unit of Jammu and Kashmir and representative(s) of all TSPs should be formed at the earliest to help with resource pooling across TSPs. A second-level committee at the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) headquarters should be formed to periodically review and resolve any impediment being experienced by any affected entity.
- The authority recommends that charges paid by lessee (a TSP) to any lessor TSP for use of spare backhaul media transmission resource capacity should be reduced from the gross revenues of the lessor to arrive at applicable gross revenue (ApGR).
- There is one block headquarter (Rupshu) which has no optical fibre connectivity. USOF should fund the backhaul connectivity on optical fibre from Rupshu Block Headquarters to Nyoma/Chumathang.
- Licensed TSPs should maintain a waiting list of service demand. DoT should establish a mechanism to obtain, examine and analyse the data on the waitlist from all TSPs.
- DoT may take up the case with concerned authorities for not levying RoW charges to TSPs/IP-Is for connecting administrative setup in remote and hilly areas in Ladakh. RoW rules should be aligned with the Right of Way (RoW) Rules 2016.
- DoT should plan for a VSAT-based alternate communication overlay in all border areas of strategic importance in the country, including Ladakh, which should co-exist as backup communication medium in all such areas along with terrestrial connectivity. This will ensure the continuity of crucial communication services during the occurrence of natural calamities and/or critical situations triggered due to border conflicts in such areas.
- TRAI has made recommendations to the government on improving telecom connectivity/ infrastructure in far-flung areas of Himachal Pradesh, many of which are valid for Ladakh also. Recommendations for providing electricity to telecom sites as a priority at utility/industrial tariff, waiving off last mile installation charges for extending electric connection to telecom sites etc should be mutatis mutandis made applicable to Ladakh also.
- DoT should take up with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) and the Ladakh UT administration for coming up with a scheme to fund installation of solar panels at important strategic telecom sites in remote hilly areas.
- DoT should take up with the Ladakh UT administration, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and Border Roads Organisation (BRO) that all road construction, road widening, or other related works should be undertaken with prior coordination involving TSPs, and the liability of contractor for making the damages good to the TSPs should be included ab-initio in the contracts. DoT should also explore the possibility of constructing utility ducts in all future road widening and new road construction projects, and any ban on giving RoW permissions to utility service providers during defect liability period.
- DoT should do a site-wise analysis of all such sites that are being run by BSNL or any other TSP on VSAT in remote and hilly areas in Ladakh. For all such sites that are being run to serve strategic or service delivery needs of the government, the entire operational costs of running these sites should be borne by the government.