As India embarks on the path of digital empowerment, it will rely on optic fibre cable (OFC) to lay the foundation for this transformation. OFC will play a pivotal role in making the Digital India vision a reality. Widespread broadband access is essential to reduce the digital divide as it would facilitate the achievement of progressive government plans, support social development, assist in environmental protection and contribute to economic growth.

To ensure the effective deployment of broadband across the country, fiberisation is essential. The government has emphasised the growing need for fibre as is evident in the National Digital Communications Policy [NDCP], 2018. It is also focusing on policy initiatives like the fibre first policy and the common duct policy, leveraging fibre assets of utilities, and single-window clearances, among others, to give an impetus to OFC roll-out in the country. In a recent conference on “OFC Networks in India”, Anshu Prakash, additional secretary (telecom), Department of Telecommunications, Ministry of Communications, Government of India, delivered a keynote address on progress under various government programmes for fibre expansion, the likely impact of the NDCP, 2018 on fibre deployment in the country, and initiatives being taken to promote greater private participation in the OFC segment. Excerpts…

The OFC network has emerged as the backbone of the digital economy. In India, we are looking at a massive data opportunity. With a population of more than 1.2 billion people and a huge data appetite, we are witnessing galloping rates of data usage in the country. It is phenomenal the way data usage rates have surged. Of course, the pricing of data also has a lot to do with it.

Mobile density is high. Unique mobile density is also high. Data tariffs in India are perhaps the lowest in the world. We have an abundance of start-ups and innovators in the ecosystem, and the best brains in the world. Academia is actively involved in our digitalisation campaign, which encompasses a digital economy, 5G and Industry 4.0. We have an enabling policy framework in terms of the NDCP, 2018, a document that has been prepared in consultation with the industry.

OFC status

We have fairly robust OFC manufacturing happening in India, but fibre manufacturing itself needs a boost. We have a few manufacturers at present and the demand that is going to emerge in the future presents an opportunity for many more. Clearly, our manufacturing base is low. We are still dependent on imports in this sector. We hardly have intellectual property and standard essential patents registered in India. Our fabrication capabilities are negligible even though it is our brains that are designing these products somewhere else, be it in China or Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, the fiberisation of our networks remains poor. Fibre connectivity of towers is very limited. Fibre per capita is something to worry about. Undoubtedly, we need to deploy more OFC, but the big question is how fast it can be rolled out. Also, it is important to consider how the existing fibre can be best utilised in terms of operations and maintenance.

Wireless alone will not be enough, especially in the context of 5G. To tap the 5G potential, we need fiberisation at a very fast pace. I want to assure you that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is already working on it. The new telecom minister has identified the establishment of the National Fibre Authority and the Broadband Mission as key priorities.

Involvement of states

Fibre is a public utility. State governments are key stakeholders in the OFC value chain, both as users as well as agencies for rolling out OFC. They have a key role in granting real-time right-of-way (RoW) approvals, making the process economical. We will soon be calling a meeting with the state governments and industry representatives to have an interactive session on the RoW issue.

The two sectors that really bore the brunt of the Odisha cyclone were power and telecom. Thus, it is imperative to realise the significance of telecom infrastructure. The states need to lend support for the restoration of infrastructure.

Broadband readiness

We are soon going to come up with a broadband-readiness index to measure where each state stands vis-a-vis other states. The aim is to inculcate a sense of competition among the states, which will drive them to perform better, and also incentivise outstanding states.

Under the NDCP, 2018, we have listed several programmes for broadband enhancement – BharatNet, GramNet, NagarNet and JanWiFi – which are all dependent on OFC. We have also set a target to provide fixed line broadband access to 50 per cent of the households in the country.

OFC projects

Besides BharatNet, we have the Network for Spectrum project for the defence sector. Under the project, some parts of the spectrum held by the defence forces is being given up in lieu of OFC networks, which will carry data for them. It is a big and unique project, which is progressing rapidly. For Andaman, we have planned a submarine cable with theoretically unlimited capacity, which should be ready by June 2020. The foundation stone for the project has been laid, and we are regularly taking stock of its progress. We are ensuring that timelines are being adhered to. A similar project for Lakshadweep is also on the anvil.

The way forward

In the years to come, the digital economy will emerge as a key driver of GDP in the country. It is estimated that between 2020 and 2025, 5G and related aspects will contribute nearly $1 trillion to the Indian economy. The rural-urban divide can only be bridged by rapidly expanding our digital network, particularly the OFC network, so that similar kind of broadband access is available in rural areas as is available in urban areas.

Digitalisation can empower citizens. Direct benefit transfer is already empowering citizens. To be able to access information through the internet without having to go to government offices is empowering citizens. The provision to pay utility bills online is empowering citizens. The ease of living theme emphasised by the government can be facilitated and accelerated by digitalisation and 5G, for which OFC networks are essential.

Going forward, we hope to continue to focus on socially relevant areas. Improvement in healthcare, better access to education, enhancement of banking infrastructure, secure networks and Industry 4.0 are all closely linked to the growth and future success of the optical fibre industry and of course the telecom sector.

There is a growing urgency for all stakeholders to come together, collaborate and work towards achieving the objectives laid down under the NDCP, 2018.