The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has issued its recommendations on “Improving Telecom Infrastructure in Northeastern States of India.”

TRAI has been consistently working on improving telecom infrastructure in remote, hilly, and high-altitude terrain areas of the country. Prior to this, TRAI had also made some key recommendations to the government for improving telecom connectivity in remote and far-flung regions of India. The regulator has formulated the recommendations to enhance telecom infrastructure in the North Eastern Railway (NER), bridge the digital divide, unlocking economic potential, overcome geographical challenges, foster collaboration, and ensure national security.

TRAI has made recommendations to the respective governments of northeastern states to harmonise their respective state right of way (RoW) policy in line with the Indian Telegraph RoW Rules, 2016, state governments of NER including Sikkim should provide electricity to telecom sites as a priority (within 15 days of connections request) at utility/industrial tariff, and to waive off or subsidise last mile installation charges for extending electricity connection.

In addition, TRAI has recommended that the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) should continue to provide full reimbursement support for installing solar backup, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) and concerned state government should come up with a scheme to fund installation of renewable energy sources at all important (existing and new) strategic telecom sites in remote hilly areas immediately. Meanwhile, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT)/USOF should immediately provide capital expenditure (capex) subsidy on viability gap funding (VGF) model through competitive bidding process for optical fibre cable (OFC) backbone connectivity on ring topology, and lastly, USOF to fund the operation and upkeep of network so created initially for five years on service level agreement (SLA) model. It also encouraged consortium of IP-I, proposed digital connectivity infrastructure providers (DCIPs) and telecom service providers (TSPs) to participate in the bidding process.

To make the 4G saturation project more impactful, the TRAI has recommended that in the first phase, in consultation with respective state governments of NER including Sikkim, priority should be given to all uncovered/non-4G villages which have schools, health centres, police stations, post offices, ration shops, anganwadi centres, etc. irrespective of the population of the village. Also, the next priority should be given to all other villages with populations of over 250, and all the locations planned for improvement in highway 4G coverage.

Furthermore, the TRAI has recommended that the central government should provide budgetary assistance in the form of grant to the states including those in NER only for the purpose of assisting certain village level government institutions in obtaining a BharatNet connection, procuring digital communication devices, and covering the monthly usage charges for connectivity. The grant should be divided in proportion of 25:75 wherein the 25 per cent of the grant should be used by these institutions for procuring terminal end digital communication devices and 75 per cent of the grant should be utilised for paying the cost of connectivity and monthly usage charges thereof to Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL).

Moreover, DoT should take up with Ministry of Defence (MoD) for allocation of one/two pair of OFC of network for spectrum (NFS) network to BSNL for extending telecom coverage (including broadband services) to the villages located in far-flung or border areas of the northeastern states under BharatNet project.

In line with recommendations made earlier, titled “Improving Telecom Coverage and Backhaul Infrastructure in far-flung areas of Ladakh”, TRAI has recommended that all operating TSPs in NER including Sikkim having their backhaul transmission media must provide, on fair and non-discriminatory terms and conditions, access to their spare backhaul transmission media resource capacity via lease/rent or on mutually agreeable terms and conditions, to any eligible licensed TSP/ internet service provider (ISP) including implementing agencies of ongoing and futuristic USOF projects, who seeks access to such resource.

A committee headed by a senior officer from DoT field unit of the respective state/local service area (LSA) level, and also involving suitable representative of all operating TSPs of the NER LSAs including Sikkim be formed at the earliest to help resource pooling across TSPs for optical fibre-based ring formation, and to periodically review and resolve such representations at state/LSA level.

Further, considering the analysis made on the provision of satellite backhaul to mobile tower sites in remote and difficult to access locations in northeastern states including Sikkim, the TRAI has recommended that 100 per cent reimbursement on account of the satellite link charges shall be made by USOF/DoT to BSNL against 4G Saturation Project for all the links for the entire duration of the maintenance agreement, and subsidies on account of the satellite links shall be given by USOF/DoT to TSPs against the 4G coverage project for the entire duration of the maintenance agreement.

Industry reactions:

Commenting on the recommendations, Lt. Gen. Dr. S.P. Kochhar, director general, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), said, “COAI welcomes some of the important recommendations made by TRAI, which re-emphasise some of the industry’s long-standing asks. The industry is confident that if implemented in letter and spirit, these progressive recommendations will provide further impetus to proliferation of telecom and broadband services in the north-east region of the country, thus propelling socio-economic and digital progress for the citizens. Following are the recommendations which would benefit the telecom ecosystem in the region, especially the consumers. The regulator has recommended complete exemption of RoW charges in the rural, tribal and hilly regions for a duration of five years, which will encourage TSPs to invest further towards network deployments in the lesser populated regions. As regards provisioning power supply for the telecom sector, it has been recommended that electricity be provided to telecom sites as a priority (within 15 days of connections request) and importantly, at utility/industrial tariff rates. The respective state electricity regulatory commissions (SERCs) are to notify these utility tariffs, which are to be lower than the industrial tariff. Further, waiving off or subsidising last mile installation charges for extending electricity connection to telecom sites in remote and hilly areas has been recommended. These would serve in faster and more economic operations of the sector, eventually benefitting the consumers. Use of renewable energy for telecom has also recommended to be supported through a proposed government scheme to fund installation of renewable energy sources at all important strategic telecom sites in remote hilly areas immediately. Enabling provisions recommended to be incorporated in the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ policy to expedite accord of environmental clearance to TSPs for installing mobile towers and DG sets for tower locations, would hasten telecom infrastructure development in the region. Further, the regulator’s earlier recommendations on ‘Use of Street Furniture for Small Cell and Aerial Fiber Deployment’ have been advised to be implemented to strengthen 5G deployments. The DoT has been recommended to engage with the Department of Expenditure (DoE), to extend the execution timeline for projects proposed by states under the ‘Special Assistance to States for Capital Investment for FY 2022-23’ scheme, especially Part V, involving the scope of extending last mile connectivity using OFC. This would help ensure that the planned development efforts in the region are not disrupted or delayed due to the lack of project implementation time.”