Digital technology is crucial for accelerating the country’s socio-economic growth and ensuring universal access to telecom services. The government is playing a pivotal role in bringing about a digital transformation. Sanjay Shamrao Dhotre, union minister of state for human resource development, communications, and electronics & information technology, talks about the government’s key initiatives in this respect. Excerpts from his address at recent industry events…

Telecom infrastructure development

The government has taken several policy initiatives to facilitate infrastructure growth. These include permitting trading, sharing and liberalisation  of spectrum, as well as sharing of passive and active infrastructure; notification  of the Right of Way (RoW) Rules, 2016; and making available government land/buildings for the installation of towers.

During the period April 2014-November 2019, the industry has seen the deployment of 1.56 million additional base transceiver stations (BTSs) for 2G/3G/4G-LTE services, taking the total BTS count to 2.21 million. Meanwhile, 167,000 mobile towers were installed between December 2015 and November 2019. At present, India has a total of 582,000 telecom towers spread across the length and breadth of the country.

5G services

5G technology, with its enormous capabilities, will impact every area of industry, society and governance. India must harness the power of 5G to leapfrog to a brighter future. The government is creating an enabling framework for the deployment of affordable and secure 5G services in the country. The 5G High Level Forum, established by the government, is one of the important structures responsible for building a strong collaboration among ministries and the industry. The National Digital Communication Policy (NDCP), 2018 aims to bring in investments of $100 billion and create 4 million new job opportunities by 2022. To promote the development of technology in India, the government is working in collaboration with academia, industry and start-ups in the areas of innovation, research and development, as well as intellectual property rights generation and incorporation into 5G and related technology standards. There is a need for robust investments by the industry in 5G innovation start-ups and 5G products that can create India-specific patents.

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is working with different ministries to create India-specific use cases in areas such as education, healthcare and public safety. The International Mobile Telecommunications 2020 standards are also being finalised. DoT has received 16 applications from licensed telecom service providers for 5G technology trials. As for spectrum allocation, the airwaves acquired through auctions held from time to time are permitted to be used in a technologically agnostic manner. Successful bidders in the spectrum auctions can deploy mobile services using any technology, including 5G.

The government is doing its part to improve ease-of-doing business in the telecom sector and  ensure fair competition in the private sector. But the states at their level also need to make 5G a priority since this will comprise the infrastructure of the future.

5G services are expected to be introduced gradually in India and advance to a full range of services as the ecosystem and the demand for these services grow. Indian start-ups, small and medium enterprises, and software service companies are all stakeholders in this digital space and have a window of opportunity to work in the 5G ecosystem. Telecom service providers, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and telecom sector stakeholders have an important role to play in the 5G era.

National Broadband Mission

The recently launched National Broadband Mission (NBM) is of utmost importance for fulfilling the aim of digitalising India. Since 2014, the Ministry of Communications has been working towards achieving its aim of connecting the unconnected. As of December 2019, out of 597,000 villages, around 570,000 have access to mobile connectivity. In the past six years, around 140,000 telecom towers have been installed. Further, under the BharatNet project, around 142,000 gram panchayats have been connected through broadband. Today, around 1.2 million subscribers use broadband services through this network.

The NBM has been structured around the three principles of universality, affordability and quality. Its key objectives are:

  • Broadband access to all villages by 2022.
  • Facilitating universal and equitable access to broadband services across the country, and especially in rural and remote areas.
  • Laying an incremental 3 million route km of optic fibre cable (OFC) and increasing tower density from 0.42 to 1 tower per 1,000 population by 2024.
  • Significantly improving the quality of mobile and internet services.
  • Developing innovative implementation models for RoW and working with the states to ensure consistent policies pertaining to the expansion of digital infrastructure as well as RoW approvals for laying OFC.
  • Developing a Broadband Readiness Index to measure the availability of digital communications infrastructure and a conducive policy ecosystem within a state.
  • Creating a digital fibre map of the communications network and infrastructure including OFCs and towers, across the country.
  • Facilitating $100 billion of investments from stakeholders including Rs 700 billion from the Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund.
  • Making the policy and regulatory changes needed to accelerate the expansion and creation of digital infrastructure and services.
  • Working with all stakeholders, including the concerned ministries, departments and agencies for enabling investments for the mission.

This is the age of disruptive technology and the NBM will enable India to harness this opportunity. Through this, we will make available affordable and high-speed internet in remote areas, schools, colleges, government hospitals and offices.

For the success of this mission, it is important that the RoW rules are implemented uniformly across the states.  To this end, the central government is working with all the state governments and local bodies.

Setting up of a telecom ombudsman

During January-November 2019, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) received over 26,400 complaints against telecom companies. The government received 44,890 complaints during this 11-month period. The TRAI Act, 1997 does not envisage the handling of individual consumer complaints by the regulator. However, the complaints received by TRAI are forwarded to the concerned service provider for appropriate action. To this end, the government is considering the setting up of a telecom ombudsman to address consumer grievances.

Connecting the unconnected

Several projects have been approved for facilitating mobile services in unconnected villages. Under the Phase I of the project for  providing connectivity in Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-affected areas, the government has installed 2,355 towers. Meanwhile, under Phase II of the same project, the installation of 2,217 mobile towers has been approved. These towers will be deployed in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

The government has provided mobile connectivity in 354 villages located in the uncovered border areas of Ladakh and Kargil and in regions of Uttarakhand. Installations have also been approved in other priority areas. The remaining uncovered villages are being covered in a phased manner by  telecom service providers as per the government’s mandate.

The government has come up with a Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan for mobile connectivity in the north-eastern region to provide mobile coverage in uncovered villages, and to augment transmission networks. Meanwhile, the BharatNet project was launched with the aim of providing broadband connectivity in all gram panchayats (approximately 250,000) in the country, entailing an estimated cost of Rs 420.68 billion.

The government has recently flagged off a project to lay submarine optical fibre cable from Chennai to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands for providing connectivity in the islands. Initiatives are under way to provide mobile connectivity in uncovered villages and along the National Highway 223 in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Satellite bandwidth augmentation up to 4 Gbps for the Andaman & Nicobar Islands has also been approved.

Similarly, mobile connectivity has been enhanced in Lakshadweep by the installation of 10 mobile towers. Satellite bandwidth augmentation of up to 1.71 Gbps has also been undertaken in the region.