K. Rajaraman, Chairman, Digital Communications Commission, and Secretary (Telecommunications), Department of Telecommunications (DoT)

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has been playing a proactive role in promoting the expansion of optical fibre cable (OFC) networks in India. Government initiatives aimed at easing right-of-way (RoW) access for telecom service providers, expanding OFC coverage under the BharatNet project and launching the new RoW portal are all helping shape India’s digital trajectory. At tele.net’s recent conference on “OFC Networks in India”, K. Rajaraman, chairman, Digital Communications Commission, and secretary (telecommunications), DoT, shared his views on India’s evolving OFC landscape, recent government initiatives and future plans. Edited excerpts…

Expanding 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 policies of the government focused on Digital India and broadband for all are very relevant in this regard.

However, the most important issue that has been pointed out is the need for a clear and enabling policy for RoW of fibre networks. Since 2016, when the RoW rules were published, work has been in progress. Over the last six years, because of the consistent efforts of the government, almost all states have aligned their policies with the RoW rules, and we expect this process to be completed in the next couple of months. A number of states have published their policies, revised their charges and disposed thousands of applications that have been pending for a long time.

We have put in place the Gati Shakti Sanchar RoW portal, which enables interconnection with the state government workflow systems and Government of In­dia workflow systems. Through application programming interfaces, we have integrated the Gati Shakti Sanchar Portal with state RoW portals to enable service providers to get RoW clearances 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 (cleared automatically). On July 19, 2022, the Odi­sha cabinet cleared the deemed approval clause. We will ensure that this clause is put in place across all states so that time is not lost while setting up OFC networks.

There is also the issue of alignment of charges. We have persuaded the state governments to complete alignment over the next couple of months. 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.

So, RoW issues, which have been slowing down or stalling progress, have actually receded into the background. If we look at the pendency of RoW applications, about 71,000 applications were pending on Dec­ember 15, 2021. But as of today, the number has come down to 17,000.

DoT has convened state broadband committee (SBC) meetings, which are chaired by chief secretaries. I would request the industry to use SBCs in their respective states to drive the agenda of OFC-related developments and policies in states.

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 bylaws called “In-Building Access by Telecom Service Providers”. This was issued in March 2022. The state govern­me­nts, especially the town and country planning departments, can incorporate these amendments in the model bylaws and in developing 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 enabling fibre connections to homes in large residential complexes. This will enable access permissions for telecom service providers, provision of common telecom infrastructure (CTI), and permission for in-building access for CTI facilities. The charges for CTI should be fair, reasonable, transparent, non-discriminatory and based on residential rates. No fees would be charged for fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) networks. Over the next several months, we will be interacting intensively with the state governments through the SBC meetings chaired by state chief secretaries, to get the in-building access regulations adopted by the state governments.

The government is also keen to push capex in digital infrastructure, especially for BharatNet. We will be making the final push to reach 600,000 villages from 250,000 gram panchayats (GPs), where work is in progress currently. We expect to connect about 220,000 GPs by the end of 2022. We will also be rolling out services on an open-access basis, enabling connections through internet service providers, virtual network operators and a host of other service providers. We would also be putting in place sound operations and ma­in­tenance contracts to maintain these middle-mile networks to ensure high levels of 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. In addition, optical line termination equipment and optical network terminals, among other things, are also manufactured in the country. We have also launched the production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme to enable manufacturers of all such equipment grow. We have also recently rolled out the design-linked incentive scheme, wherein we offer a 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.

In the union budget, we had announc­ed a research and development (R&D) fund comprising 5 per cent of the Universal Service Obligation Fund, which will contribute about Rs 5 billion every year to the R&D pool, which will be laid out for domestic manufacturers to work on state-of-the-art designs in products and services.

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 Institute of Tech­nology, involving all R&D institutions that are working in this sector. Probably in the next few months, we will be launching an advanced optical communication testbed, which will work on cutting-edge optical communications technology such as space division multiplexing and advanced routers, which are required for core infrastructure.

The prime minister has been stressing on the concept of Gati Shakti, which is actually a philosophy by which we are trying to harness technology to assess the quality of infrastructure and connectivity between infrastructure. We, at DoT, in collaboration with the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, have put in place a set of GIS layers in the Gati Shakti Sanchar portal, which enables decision-making on locating, citing and connecting various elements of optical fibre and mobile communications systems.

We have so far mapped about 1,100,000 km of OFC in our systems and nearly 700,000 mobile towers, and we will be using them extensively in our decision-ma­k­ing. Interestingly, the Gati Shakti Sanchar portal has also 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 to the tune of 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 located in and around the location will be automatically notified.

We hope that the scientific and industrial community will reach out to us and work with us to ensure that we bring down the costs of operating OFC networks in India to the lowest possible levels, so that we can enable the poorest man in India to afford an FTTH connection in the times to come.