The roll-out of 5G and the proliferation of next-generation technologies such as internet of things and artificial intelligence have led to a burgeoning demand for high speed and ubiquitous connectivity in the country. However, the use of higher frequency bands for 5G roll-out brings the downsides of shorter coverage and lower cell radii, which, in turn force the need for densification of the network to ensure consistent coverage. This means telecom service providers (TSPs) must install a greater number of radio equipment and associated infrastructure, posing a major economic and operational challenge for them. To address this, they need to have equipment that is small enough to be mounted on any structure, yet capable of supporting new-age applications. The portable and easy-to-deploy nature of small cells and aerial fibre make them promising alternatives to achieve this objective of network densification.
In this context, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recently released its recommendations on the “Use of Street Furniture for Small Cell and Aerial Fibre Deployment.” These recommendations are based on stakeholder discussions on TRAI’s consultation paper on the use of small cell and aerial fibre deployment released in March 2022. As per TRAI, the policy measures suggested in these recommendations are linked with each other and a coordinated and integrated approach would be most optimal to ensure a positive result.
A look at TRAI’s key recommendations…
RoW issues and adequacy of current provisions in RoW Rules, 2016
TRAI recommends that the Department of Telecommunications’ (DoT) clarification dated October 26, 2022, on the Indian Telegraph Right of Way (RoW) Rules, 2016 regarding the term “street furniture” should be made part of the Indian Telegraph RoW Rules through a suitable amendment in a relevant gazette notification. It also recommends certain amendments to the Indian Telegraph RoW (Amendment) Rules, 2022. It suggests that for the installation of small cells and telegraph lines, a licensee should submit an application, along with details of street furniture and a copy of certification by a structural engineer authorised by the appropriate authority, attesting to the structural safety of the street furniture where small cells and telegraph lines are proposed to be deployed, to the appropriate authority for permission to use street furniture for installation of small cells and telegraph lines.
TRAI also reiterates its earlier recommendations that the scope of the proposed national portal should be expanded to include RoW permissions from utility providers. More specifically, since most of the street furniture assets are under the control of the power sector, the portal should also include a facility to process RoW falling under the jurisdiction of the power sector including discoms. Further, it recommends that DoT should make a provision in the GatiShakti Sanchar portal for accepting single applications for bulk processing of sites for granting various permissions, including RoW and power connection.
Infrastructure sharing by CAAs with TSPs and IP-Is
To improve the quality of service, ensure availability of services from multiple TSPs, and reduce the cost of infrastructure creation and usage, it is imperative that infrastructure sharing policies be encouraged. To this end, TRAI recommends that DoT should issue advisory guidelines to states mandating controlling administrative authorities (CAAs) that own or control traffic lights to share these assets with TSPs or infrastructure providers (IP-Is) for the deployment of small cells.
In addition, it has recommended that all central government entities should earmark dedicated spaces in their existing and planned structures for installing digital connectivity infrastructure (DCI) including small and macro cells. Dedicated spaces on rooftops should be identified for deploying small and macro cells. All such spaces should be geographic information system (GIS)-mapped and made available on the GatiShakti Sanchar portal for charge-free use by TSPs/IP-Is on a non-discriminatory basis. In line with the GatiShakti initiative, in all future projects of utility providers that are partially or fully funded by the government to put up new assets or expand existing assets, provisions to host or support DCI such as small cells, towers and aerial fibre should be inbuilt.
TRAI also recommends that enabling provisions or suitable terms and conditions shall be introduced in all telecom licences and IP-I registration agreements, prohibiting TSPs/IP-I providers from entering into any exclusive contract or RoWs with infrastructure owners or CAAs or any other authority.
Further, TRAI reiterates its earlier recommendation on “Roadmap to Promote Broadband Connectivity and Enhanced Broadband Speed” dated August 31, 2021, for the formation of a National RoW Council. All the RoW matters related to street furniture should be placed before this council.
Street furniture and small cell sharing among TSPs and IP-Is
TRAI believes that in the absence of an appropriate framework to promote sharing among TSPs, it would be difficult to achieve the required small cell densities. To address this issue, it recommends that charges paid by the lessee TSP to the lessor TSP for use of shared infrastructure should be reduced from the gross revenues of the lessor TSP to arrive at the applicable gross revenue (ApGR) of lessor TSP. To implement this, it is suggested that a new item named “revenue earned from other licensed TSPs from sharing/leasing of infrastructure” be inserted under the existing licence condition named “list of other items to be excluded from gross revenue to arrive at ApGR”. Also, the information collected in “Format of Statement of Revenue and Licence Fee” that is attached with each authorisation chapter in the unified licence (UL), UL (virtual network operator) and with internet service provider licences needs to be modified to capture information from such revenues under a separate head.
TRAI also recommends that the guidelines and registration agreement of IP-Is should be modified to exclusively mention the term “poles” in their scope of work.
Standardisation of small cells and installation practices
The consultation paper on the use of street furniture and aerial fibre deployment released by TRAI earlier highlighted the importance of adopting a system where approvals are provided at a national level using generic declarations and standardised classes in order to evolve towards a system of a simplified, standardised and repeatable set of processes. TRAI recommends a set of measures in this context. It is of the view that low-power base transceiver stations (LPBTSs) should be defined as those BTSs that radiate equivalent isotropically radiated power less than or equal to 600 W. Such equipment/small cells should be exempted from seeking any kind of permission from any authority except the agency owning the street furniture or building. TRAI also recommends that DoT should make the necessary provisions in the GatiShakti Sanchar portal to incorporate bulk application filing and processing for all categories of small cells.
Additionally, TSPs are required to provide self-certification for electromagnetic field radiation compliance every three years. However, considering the sheer volume of small cells, which otherwise may put severe strain on TSPs’ resources, TRAI recommends that the self-certification criteria for LPBTSs should be relaxed to five years.
Power-related issues and solutions
Though small cells consume much less power than to macro base stations, given the lower coverage area and the lesser requirement for site support infrastructure, a continuous power source is required at the street furniture for deploying small cells. To this end, TRAI recommends that discoms should make provisions to provide connections for telecom sites to TSPs/IP-Is on a priority basis. The timelines for providing the connection should be fixed and monitored through a portal.
Given the importance of DCI for socio-economic development, TRAI suggests that discoms should not charge TSPs/IP-Is for the installation or upgradation of transformers or for pulling the last mile of the electrical connection. If required, states should make the necessary provisions to compensate discoms for such waiver of charges. TRAI is also of the view that smart prepaid electricity meters should be installed in all existing telecom installations on priority.
Institutional mechanism to enable collaboration between CAAs and TSPs/IP-Is
TRAI believes that a strong collaboration between stakeholders is needed to ensure that 5G deployment takes place in a coordinated environment and the challenges due to interdependency on different agencies are addressed. TRAI recommends that the role of the broadband steering committee, state broadband committee and district/ municipal monitoring committee should be expanded to include continuous monitoring of the issues of small cells at the central, state and district/municipal levels, respectively. TRAI also recommends that the scope of e-marketplace, which it had earlier suggested in its recommendations on “Roadmap to Promote Broadband Connectivity and Enhanced Broadband speed” to facilitate leasing and trading of passive infrastructures using a common GIS platform, should be expanded to include small cells.