A robust telecom infrastructure is critical for the success of the Digital India programme. However, infrastructure roll-out in India is fraught with challenges. At a recent tele.net conference, Amit Sharma, executive vice president and president, Asia, ATC India, shared his views on the challenges that are impeding data proliferation and the digital journey of the country. Excerpts…

While India has seen phenomenal data growth in the past three years, it has still not come on a par with Korea or the US in terms of per capita data consumption. This indicates that while we have come a long way, there is still a long road to travel. It is remarkable that India is one of the few countries that are betting big on a digital future. So, whether we look at Aadhaar or Jan Dhan or e-governance programmes, there is an increased government focus and commitment to make India digital. Broadband, of course, will be crucial in achieving this vision.

BharatNet is one of the anchor projects under Digital India. It aims to take broadband to village panchayats, delivering gigabit links through fibre connectivity. Unless this fibre is linked to a mobile network to deliver services to a person’s hand-held device, the Digital India vision cannot be realised. At present, we do not have sufficient infrastructure to deliver very high capacities. There are not enough towers, not enough spectrum.

Last-mile delivery is critical and tower companies are best suited for this task, but the business needs to be commercially viable for us. At the same time, telcos, which use this infrastructure to deliver services, must also find it profitable. If not addressed, the lack of adequate infrastructure will certainly put a crimp in data growth.

For 5G too, the lack of adequate physical infrastructure will become an issue. We cannot have 30-40 per cent growth in data without concurrent growth in radiating points (towers, poles and Wi-Fi). Clearly, that is not happening right now because of a variety of reasons. Government land/infrastructure is either available on economically unviable terms, or is not available at all, which hampers the proliferation of radiating points. Unlike 4G, 5G will be totally unforgiving in terms of spectrum and fibre infrastructure.

The availability of adequate wireless backhaul will be a big consideration in 5G. Significant bandwidth would be needed from each of the radiating points. While ideally the backhauling needs must be met by fibre (as is in the West where 80 per cent of backhaul is fibre based), in India, if we manage around 40 per cent fiberisation over the next five years, it would be an achievement.

Now, there are several challenges on the wireless backhaul side too. One of the key challenges is spectrum availability. The government must make very large chunks of spectrum available for backhaul, preferably unlicensed spectrum. Licensed spectrum should be made available on very liberal terms and at a minimal cost. E-band must be opened up for wireless backhaul, but again both the quantity and the price at which the spectrum is available will be critical factors.

The government taxes the telecom sector much higher than other sectors, which are less mission critical to the future of the country. The government needs to stop treating the sector as a cash cow. Instead, it must enable sector growth by addressing infrastructural bottlenecks. A key issue facing towercos is that the industry does not get benefits such as those extended to other infrastructure sectors. These include higher degrees of freedom when raising funds, and when treated under the indirect and direct taxation regimes.

Another challenge is that we are subject to arbitrary permitting conditions across the country. Every municipality has its own set of rules, charges, limitations and restrictions. The Department of Telecommunications and the Ministry of Urban Affairs need to work more closely to develop guidelines for setting up any kind of radiating points. These guidelines can help bring uniformity in terms of permissions required, licensing conditions and the principle on which charges are levied. The government had notified a right of way (RoW) policy, but it has been accepted by only a few states so far.

In sum, there is a greater need for collaboration between the government and the industry to iron out the aforementioned issues so that India bootstraps its way to the next wave of growth and becomes a digital economy. The recently released National Digital Communications Policy has recognised that the role of towercos cannot be limited to just passive infrastructure providers. It lays emphasis on broadening the role of IP-1s.