Ashwini Vaishnaw,, minister for communications, electronics and information technology, and railways

The telecom industry remained on a positive trajectory and witnessed major developments in 2022. For the industry, the major focus area was the launch of 5G services, following which, in the latter half of the year, telcos focused on expediting the roll-out of 5G network across the country. Meanwhile, the government made active interventions to ensure a conducive environment for the 5G ecosystem to thrive. Ashwini Vaishnaw, minister for communications, electronics and information technology, and railways, spoke about various government initiatives at different events during the past year. Edited excerpts from some of his addresses…

Focus on 5G

Telecom is the gateway to digital India, and a strong telecom sector is needed in this period of transition. The prime minister has given strategic sector status to the telecom sector, and now the focus is on the development of telecom technology. Fur­ther, the prime minister gave regulatory certainty to this sector and created a tra­nsparent system, which was under liti­ga­tion until now. As a result of these refor­ms, today the telecom sector is coming up as a sunrise industry.

The launch of 5G services in India will be recorded in golden letters. With the launch of 5G services, there will be great de­velopment in the fields of education, health, agriculture, logistics and the digital economy, and the face of communications will change. Efforts are on to achieve last-mile connectivity in optical fibre network through an innovative model. The 5G journey is going to be very exciting. Many co­un­tries took multiple years to reach 40-50 per cent 5G coverage. However, we are targeting an aggressive timeline and the government has given a target of 80 per cent coverage. We should definitely cover at least 80 per cent in a very short time frame.

The government is going to set up 100 5G labs across the country. To this end, it is working towards simplifying the licence regime for all telecom players. The telecom industry should convert a minimum of 12 of these labs into incubators to train students and promote innovation, research and experiment. Meanwhile, more than 200 citi­es will have access to 5G services in the next six months (by March 2023), and eff­orts are being made to cover 80-90 per cent of the country in the next two years. The government has provided a market stabilising force status to Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and has sanctioned a Rs 1.64 trillion package, which is a historic move. BSNL is expected to laun­ch its 5G services on August 15, 2023.

Moreover, there is a big fundamental change happening in telecom manufacturing in the country. The prime minister has issued a challenge of developing indigeno­us technology for 4G and 5G. India is mar­ching ahead in technology developme­nt, and now the world is looking at Indian telecom technology.

Launch of central RoW portal

The portal shall act as an enabler of the objective of ease of doing business for te­lecommunications infrastructure works, in accordance with the vision of the prime mi­nister. The timely disposal of right-of-way (RoW) applications of various service and infrastructure providers shall enable speedy infrastructure creation, which would, in turn, be an enabler for the timely roll-out of 5G network. There are various advantages of adopting technological tools in governance. The portal will enable telecom service providers as well as infrastructure pro­viders to apply through a co­mmon, single portal for RoW permissions for laying optical fibre cable and for permissions from state/UT governments and local bodies for erecting mobile towers. As it smoothens the process of obtaining RoW permissions and enables quicker ap­provals, it is expected to facilitate easy roll-out of 5G services, whe­re­by a base transceiver station will be ins­talled at very short in­tervals. For effective monitoring of RoW applications across the country, the portal even comes fitted with a potent dashboard showing state- and district-wise pendency status. In the amended RoW ru­les, charges for RoW permissions have been made reasonable, and a ceiling has be­en fixed for such charges for the ins­tallation of 5G sm­all cells and optical fibre cable on street furniture. These amendments will pave the way for the deployment of 5G small cells on existing street infrastructure.

Last-mile connectivity

Last-mile connectivity is vital to achieve the vision of digital India. The government is investing nearly $30 billion to en­sure last-mile network accessibility for 4G and 5G in the country, and build a robust digital infrastructure in rural areas. The government has reached out to over 0.15 million gram panchayats to date. We are now creating a whole ecosystem of village entrepreneurs, channelising the energies of youngsters to take good quality, high speed data connectivity to every village in the country while making them a part of the growth journey. We have tested this mo­­del, and approximately 80,000 new connections are now being facilitated ev­ery month. Moreover, the state-owned BSNL’s 4G network will be upgraded to 5G in five to seven months, and rolled out across the telco’s 135,000 telecom towers in India. BSNL has a very strong presence in rural areas, which are still not fully covered by the other telecom players. A 4G technology stack will be rolled out, which will be upgraded to 5G in a time frame of five-seven months. After the roll-out of 5G across the BSNL network, the telco will become a major player in the telecom space especially in far-flung areas.

Release of the National Strategy on Additive Ma­nu­­facturing

We have some very clearly defined goals in this domain, and I think that this is a very important characteristic of the many programmes that have been launched in the last seven years. We are targeting 50 India-specific technologies, 100 new start-ups, 500 products, 10 new and existing manufacturing sectors, and the addition of 100,000 units of skilled manpower. With this kind of goal-making approach and collaboration between the centre, states, industry and other stakeholders, I am sure that we will achieve a lot of success throu­gh the National Strategy on Additive Ma­nu­facturing.

Additive manufacturing has immen­se potential to revolutionise India’s manufacturing and industrial production landscape through digital processes, communication, imaging, architecture and engineering. With the release of the strategy, the innovation and research and development ecosystems will be encouraged to en­ga­ge in the public-private partnership mo­de in order to transform the existing rese­arch/knowledge base and develop additive manufacturing-grade materials, 3D prin­ter machines and printed indigenous products. These will be sold at vast domestic and international markets in various sectors including electronics, photonics, medical devices, agro and food processing.

Semicon India Programme

The government approved the Semicon In­dia Programme (Programme for Deve­lop­ment of Semiconductors and Display Ma­nu­facturing Ecosystem in India) with an outlay of Rs 760 billion for the development of a sustainable semiconductor and display manufacturing ecosystem in India on December 15, 2021. Semicon­du­c­tor manufacturing, which is crucial to meet the strategic needs of the country, has attracted interest from global companies. A good number of applications have been received under the programme. The scheme has de­monstrated excellent progress.

Today, in India, we have close to 55,000 semiconductor design engineers working for various companies. As part of our semiconductor programme, we have brought out a design-led scheme whereby engine­ers who want to try their luck at designing semiconductor chips can use common fa­cilities being developed at the Centre for De­velopment of Advanced Computing unit in Pune, before starting up their venture. We are confident that within the next five-six years, India will become the se­mi­conductor design capital of the world. We will use that capability to feed our semiconductor manufacturing as well.

Future reforms in the telecom industry

The telecom sector in the country will witness more reforms in the coming years. The industry too will have to do its bit and improve the quality of service significantly. The service quality parameters have to be significantly increased, and the Depart­ment of Telecommunications (DoT) shou­ld approach the Telecom Regulatory Au­tho­rity of India (TRAI) for this. We have requested DoT to send a new consultation paper to TRAI, recommending that the quality of service parameters be increased to almost three to four times of what they are today. The industry, including telecom operators and infrastructure providers, are poised to move ahead on improving the quality of services in the country with a slew of reforms being lined up. The initiatives cannot be one-sided, and the equation has to be reciprocal. There is a need for a conscious change in the mindset of departmental officers from regulatory to developmental vis-a-vis the common goals of ensuring connectivity to every household in the country and improving the quality of coverage. Only collaboration between departmental officers in the field and at headquarters, as well as with industry and academia, will propel the telecom sector forward, with the changing nature of technology.