The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has played a critical role in the growth and recovery of the telecom sector. K. Rajaraman, chairman, Digital Communications Commission, and secretary (telecommunications), DoT, shared his views on the key policy initiatives, optical fibre cable (OFC) landscape, introduction of 5G and the future outlook for the sector at various industry events during the past year. Edited excerpts from some of his addresses…
Policy initiatives for the telecom sector
The government has enabled easy market access to telecom equipment and a fair and proactive regulatory framework that has ensured the availability of telecom services to consumers at affordable prices. The regulation of foreign direct investments and a series of reform measures have been taken to make business easier and less costly. The growing receptiveness to possibilities with newer technologies including satellite-based connectivity is a positive sign.
Significance of OFC in India
The expansion of OFC networks in India is a very important and critical task. Today, fixed wireless broadband is one of the crucial components of digital infrastructure across the world. From that perspective, optical fibre connections to every household are important for providing stable and high quality internet. The government policies focused on Digital India and Broadband for All are very relevant in this regard.
Since 2016, when the right-of-way (RoW) rules were published, work has been in progress in terms of RoW of fibre networks. Over the last six years, owing to the consistent efforts of the government, almost all states have aligned their policies with the RoW rules. A number of states have published their policies, revised their charges and disposed of thousands of applications that had been pending for a long time.
The RoW rules are being further refined to ensure that we take into account the latest developments, including the requirement of RoW for 5G small cells and other developments.
Gati Shakti Sanchar portal
We have put in place the Gati Shakti Sanchar RoW portal, which enables interconnection with the state and central government workflow systems. Through application programming interfaces, we have integrated the Gati Shakti Sanchar portal with the state RoW portals to enable service providers to get RoW clearance on a top-priority basis. Many states have put in place a deemed approval clause such that if an application is not approved within 60 days it is treated as approved.
In collaboration with the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, we have put in place a set of GIS layers in the Gati Shakti Sanchar portal to enable decision-making on locating, citing and connecting various elements of optical fibre and mobile communications systems.
Safeguarding OFC networks
Interestingly, the Gati Shakti Sanchar portal has highlighted a few other things. Today, the 3,300,000 km optical fibre network in our country suffers from about 1,000,000 cuts every year because of unauthorised and unplanned excavations and digging done by various private as well as public contractors. The estimated damage inflicted on OFC networks would be Rs 25 billion-Rs 30 billion, in terms of additional costs for replacing the damaged optical fibre. So, we are piloting a “call-before-you-dig” solution, which involves coming out with amendments to the telecom rules to ensure that all persons who need to dig necessarily register themselves on a mobile application, which will inform where they are going to dig. Utility providers that are situated in and around the location will be automatically notified.
The government is also keen to push capex in digital infrastructure, especially for BharatNet. We will make the final push to reach 600,000 villages from the 250,000 gram panchayats (GPs) where work is in progress currently. We will also roll out services on an open access basis, enabling connections through internet service providers, virtual network operators and a host of other service providers. Moreover, we will put in place sound operations and maintenance contracts to maintain these middle-mile networks to ensure reliable availability.
We also see this as a great opportunity to fiberise telecom towers, which are present across the country. Today, nearly 35 per cent of mobile towers are fiberised. Our target is to reach 70 per cent in the next two to three years. We believe that BharatNet and expansive OFC networks would be a necessary and very important component of extending fibre to mobile towers, to enable them to deliver high quality broadband to mobile users.
In terms of manufacturing OFC, there are public sector as well as private sector players that manufacture optical fibre. Optical line termination equipment and optical network terminals are also manufactured in the country. We have launched the production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme to enable manufacturers of all such equipment to grow. We have also rolled out the design-linked incentive scheme, whereby we offer 1 per cent additional incentive for PLI partners who are willing to make such designs in India and make products based on Indian intellectual property rights.
Optical communications task force
We are also very keen to promote optical fibre communications in India. To this end, we have set up an advanced optical communications task force headed by professors from the Indian Institutes of Technology, involving all R&D institutions working in this sector. In the next few months, we will be launching an advanced optical communication test bed, which will work on cutting-edge optical communications technology such as space division multiplexing and advanced routers, which are required for core infrastructure.
Role of 5G
2022 has been an exciting year because of the launch of 5G, a much-awaited technology for the past four to five years. This is a big step forward. 5G will play a crucial role in evolving the tech industry. It will pave the way for the adoption of new use cases that can lead to the proliferation of fintech solutions in the Indian and global markets. 5G equipment is being manufactured in India for the world.
Energy efficient 5G networks
Various industry reports suggest that energy costs in a telecom company can be as high as 25-30 per cent, giving rise to the concept of using energy efficient technology. The Telecommunication Engineering Centre should develop and introduce ratings for critical network components, which could be on the lines of the energy star ratings for user devices.
Telecom service providers as well as projects under the Universal Service Obligation Fund are using local power generation, such as solar, as a means to meet the power requirements of telecom towers and base stations. It is possible to arrive at a net zero plan for telecom networks. The country should strive towards working on the efficiency of networks much more seriously than before in order to keep the footprint of this particular sector at the lowest possible level.
Today, apartment complexes, office complexes, etc., need to be fibre-friendly. Therefore, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, in collaboration with DoT, has issued an addendum to the model building by-laws called “In-Building Access by Telecom Service Providers”, issued in March 2022. State governments, especially the town and country planning departments, can incorporate these amendments in the model by-laws and in control regulations, enabling in-building solutions for fibre networks within apartment complexes. Such in-building access by telecom service providers will make cities smarter by providing fibre connections to homes in large residential complexes.
We look forward to a robust 5G roll-out in 2023. We are working on use cases and pushing state governments, ministries, startups and innovators to come out with innovative use cases in the Indian context, which will unlock businesses and will also solve some public problems. Further, the government is working to bring down the cost of telecom operations to attract more investments in the sector. Various policy measures are under way to achieve this. We are also working to bring down the cost of operating OFC networks in India to the lowest possible levels, so that we can enable the poorest man in India to afford a fibre-to-the-home connection in times to come.