K. Rajaraman, former secretary (telecommunications), DoT,

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has been playing a crucial role in promoting the expansion of optical fibre cable (OFC) networks in India. Government initiatives such as the easing of right-of-way (RoW) access for telecom service providers, the launch of the Sugam Sanchar portal, and the expanding OFC coverage under the BharatNet project have all enabled the growth of OFC networks across the country. At tele.net’s recent conference on “OFC Networks in India,” K. Rajaraman, former secretary (telecommunications), DoT, shared his views on India’s expanding OFC network, government initiatives and future focus areas. Edited excerpts…

Optical fibre is the backbone of India’s digital economy. At present, around 3.4 million km of optical fibre connects most parts of the country. Conn­ec­ting every village in this country with fibre broadband is something we should aspire to achieve. However, this is a difficult task because there are villages in mountainous or inaccessible areas, where perhaps other tools such as satellite communications need to be used. Barring these, 99 per cent of villages in India can be covered with OFC. Today, we have con­nected over 200,000 gram panchayats through BharatNet. Now we have launch­ed an initiative to connect the remaining villages as well.

Mobile services and optical fibre serve complementary purposes and are both very important for the economy from the reliability and resilience standpoint. The government has been supporting, aiding and facilitating telecom, internet and infrastructure providers in expanding their OFC networks and reaching every corner of the country.

RoW is a very important hurdle to cro­ss in enabling OFC coverage at every corner of the country. This is not as much of a problem in rural areas as it is in urban areas. While disruption of optical fibre networks might be very high in rural areas, getting RoW is the biggest challenge in urban ar­eas. This is because urban local bodies ha­­ve certain complicated policies with res­pect to aerial and underground fibre.

As of today, nearly 35 states have agr­eed to the central government’s RoW regulations on underground fibre. Further, about 16 states have accepted them for ae­rial fibre. The government has set up the Sugam Sanchar portal, a national portal for granting RoW clearance. While the nu­mber of pending RoW applications sto­od at 70,000 in December 2021, it now st­an­ds at only 19,000. Further, the average time for application approval has drastically fallen from over 200 days in the past to around 10-12 days now.

“Connecting every village in this country with fibre broadband is something we should aspire to achieve.”

However, some more ground needs to be covered, as the percolation of policies down to the ground level is a difficult task. Therefore, sensitising local governments is an important task, which we have undertaken over the last several months. Fur­th­er, we must all join hands at the regional and sub-state levels, and start training programmes for local bodies in collaboration with the state governments. It should be our collective endeavour to work with state governments to persuade them to support these policies and provide clearances in time.

We have also established state broadband committees chaired by the chief secretaries. These are meeting frequently so that chief secretaries can review and push the agenda to ensure that delays do not im­pair connectivity initiatives.

Another area that requires work is in-building solutions. Today, owing to growing urbanisation, it is important that all telecom service providers get non-discri­minatory access to buildings to improve indoor connectivity. It should not be the case that one telecom service provider gets access to a building and shuts out the rest. It is not good for consumers, as it is anti-competitive and discriminatory. To this end, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has circulated a model set of rules for deploying in-building solutions in ur­ban developments at DoT’s in­sistence. Eight states have adopted and notified them. They mandate that non-discriminatory access be provided for fi­bre networks within gated communities or multi-storeyed apartments. We hope that more states follow soon. We will work closely with them to ensure that more internet service providers get non-discriminatory access.

Meanwhile, the 5G roll-out has been very robust in India. Nearly 290,000 base stations have been set up in a record time of nine to ten months. However, 5G has been launched on the premise that most of the country’s towers are fiberised. In reality, the current level of tower fiberisation in India stands at only 37-38 per cent. Every service provider must aim to achieve 70-80 per cent tower fiberisation, so that a high quality of service is provided to the customers. This will also help India move up on the global speed index. Countries such as UAE now offer speeds of close to 200 Mbps on mobile phones, thanks to fiberisation.

“We must all join hands atthe regional and sub-state levels, and start training programmes for local bodies in collaboration with the state governments.”

To this end, I would request all service providers to work actively to fiberise more and more towers. Fibre is also available under the BharatNet programme for tow­er fiberisation. Many service providers be­sides state discoms own fibre capacities, such as RailTel, GailTel, Mission Bhagi­ra­thi and water pipelines, which also have RoW to provide optical fibre. Further, the National Highways Authority of India has set up a special purpose vehicle for monetising the ducts that they are establishing across many of the new highways, such as the Delhi-Mumbai expressway.

Policymaking and reforms are conti­nu­ous processes. We have asked the Tele­com Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to come out with a recommendation for sharing of active infrastructure. At the end of the day, the economy can survive if services are offered at a lower cost. The lower the cost, the better it is. It is very important that we achieve scale, and scale comes from efficiency of use. We hope TRAI comes out with its recommendations soon, as this will enable service providers to plug into infrastructure provi­der networks and roll out services effortlessly, as they do in many ot­her countries. Moreover, we need to brainstorm on how to make networks more resi­lient and available. With customers such as data centres raising the bar, we must use every trick in the playbook to achieve this high level of availability.

Further, we should all work together on preventing damage to infrastructure such as ducts in cities. We have been writing constantly to the Ministry of Industry and Co­m­m­erce as well as the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs to build more and more cable ducts in urban areas. All stakeholders should individually work with local governments to enable them to launch ducts, at least in some parts of their cities. If we start slowly, we may be able to ductifiy a city in 10 years. If we do so, we will face fewer cha­llenges pertaining to breakages. So, prevention should be kept high on our agenda. To this end, the Honourable Prime Minister has launched the Call-Before-You-Dig app, which enables excavators in public places to share information about the excavation in advance, permitting preventive action.

Moreover, as optic fibre becomes more ubiquitous across the country, I would recommend that the optic fibre industry work very intensively with the Telecom Sector Skill Council to develop a skilled category of people who are required at the bottom of the business pyramid for help and support in maintaining high levels of availability and performance of networks. I would strongly recommend every state to adopt In­d­ustrial Training Institutes (ITI), so that a bigger pool of manpower becom­es available. All of us should work together to ensure that these ITIs in every state are sufficiently sponsored to provide high quality training in optic fibre repair and maintenance, so that we are able to develop a pool of manpower for high quality services.

“I would request all service providers to work actively to fiberise more and more towers.”

I will end by saying that, while we roll out existing technologies, it is very important that we develop new technologies for the future. We recently funded an advanc­ed optical communication test bed, led by IIT Madras and half a dozen start-ups. The test bed will encourage stakehol­ders to scale up development of new technologies in the optical communications space. We need to collaborate to work on the next generation of technologies.

(Note: Mr K. Rajaraman was secretary, DoT, at the time of this event. He has since assumed a new role.)