The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has been playing an instrumental role in expediting telecom infrastructure roll-out in the country. This has helped the country make rapid progress and step into the 5G era to leverage the next phase of opportunities. At tele.net’s recent conference on “Telecom Infrastructure in India”, Sharad Trivedi, deputy director general, carrier services, DoT, spoke about the evolving telecom industry, the challenges being faced and upcoming opportunities. Edited excerpts…
The Indian telecom sector has seen a lot of changes in the past 30 years. DoT was the sole operator till almost 1995. Liberalisation started somewhere around 1992 and some participation of the private sector was allowed. DoT had then further liberalised and allowed mobile operators in the four metros – Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.
Later, after the success of this experiment, it was extended to all the circles across India. At this stage, DoT’s policy was that all the circles will have two mobile operators and two landline operators. Then, the National Telecom Policy was released in 1995. It was followed by the New Telecom Policy in 1999 and then 2012. At present, we have the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018. All these policies have helped DoT to frame a mission statement and work towards that. Further, this has helped the industry to grow in a big way.
The advantage is that there has been tremendous growth in telecom subscribers. In early 1990s, there were hardly 5 million telephone subscribers. There were only landline users. Mobile services had not penetrated much. Currently, we have 1.17 billion subscribers who are mostly mobile subscribers and teledensity, which was hardly 0.5 per cent in the beginning of 1990, is almost 85 per cent. The tariff has gone down dramatically. International subscriber dialling (ISD) calls in the late 1990s were as high as Rs 75 per minute for users but have now gone down to Rs 6-Rs 7 per minute. Although our affordability has gone up, the tariff has gone down.
Meanwhile, data tariffs have also reduced. Around 10 years back, it was more than Rs 200 per GB. Now, it is hardly Rs 6-Rs 8 per GB. Earlier, even for voice calls, consumers had to pay around Rs 16 per minute for outgoing as well as incoming calls. This component now comes in a package and is of hardly any cost. We have unlimited packs of, say, Rs 250-Rs 300 per month.
A number of initiatives have been taken by the government from time to time. At each stage of liberalisation, new infrastructure has been created. When mobile operations were liberalised and were open for private participation, the parties showed interest and started investing in infrastructure. Later, infrastructure provider category 2 (IP-2) was phased out and IP-1 has been continuing since that time. As on date, it has grown in a very big way.
Now, mobile towers are being mainly installed by IP-1 companies such as Indus Towers Limited. Today, we have approximately 2.3 million base stations of various telecom operators, which are housed on 730,000 towers mainly owned by IP-1 companies. Initially, individual telecom companies were investing in telecom infrastructure although sharing of passive equipment was allowed right from day one. Later, in 2016, the government decided that sharing of active infrastructure among the telecom service providers be allowed. However, that was limited to antennas, feeder cables, base stations, the radio access network and the transmission network. Later, some more liberalisation was done and in 2021, all the infrastructure related to Wi-Fi equipment such as a Wi-Fi router and access points were allowed to be shared between access service providers and internet service providers (ISPs). Similarly, sharing of backhaul was also permitted among telecom service providers (TSPs).
The government has been working relentlessly to come up with new policies. Recently, the government sent a reference to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) for sharing of telecom infrastructure and network elements for all categories of TSPs having licence. Through this the government plans to allow infrastructure sharing in a bigger way. Moreover, there was a TRAI recommendation in March 2020 which stated that their scope should be enhanced. However, this could not be accepted because of legal issues. As a way forward, DoT has decided that there should be a light-touch telecom infrastructure licence. To this end, a reference was sent to TRAI a couple of months back. The telecom authority is working on the issue and is expected to come out with a consultation paper.
Further, another reference has been sent to TRAI to examine the licensing framework and regulatory mechanism of all the submarine cables, study the global practices and give recommendations accordingly. Although we have good capacity of submarine cables, the demand is increasing. So, we should be at par with global standards.
International long distance (ILD) gateways are another important aspect of infrastructure. They are basically gateways for transfer of telecom traffic from India to other countries. The connectivity of India with adjoining countries (such as Nepal and Bhutan) is basically on terrestrial media but if you talk about Singapore, Japan, Europe or the US, it goes through submarine cable. We already have 16 cable landing stations, but they are mainly concentrated in Mumbai and Chennai. In the past two years, we have given provisions for nine cable landing stations against five new cables that are coming to India. Now, as these new cable landing stations are coming up, the capacity will become much higher. As on December 2021, the international capacity of cable landing stations was 103 Tbps, of which 67 Tbps was being used. The figures of the past two to three years have shown a steady rise in the capacity and usage. The new cables that are coming up have tremendous capacity. So, international capacity is going to get a big boost.
There are specific requirements for submarine cable maintenance. In case a cable gets cut on the terrestrial site, we normally take permission from the local authorities, following which digging and splicing is done. But when a submarine cable gets damaged, specialised ships have to be requisitioned. Currently, India does not have any such specialised ships. So, operators ask for the help of specialist agencies, which are mainly based in Southeast Asia or Singapore. Now for getting these ships and personnel one requires clearances from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). It usually takes a really long time. In fact, we have interacted with the MoD and MHA, and the whole process has been made online.
We advise operators to apply at least three months in advance so that they have all the approvals in place. Earlier, we were able to give approvals on a six-month basis for MoD clearance and one year for MHA. From January 2022, we have analysed and found that all cases which were received by us at least three months in advance have been given approval (except for one case).
Meanwhile, many IP-1 companies are showing interest in setting up infrastructure. In the past two years, we have found that around 280 IP-1 registrations have been issued and the current number is approximately 1,350.
The densification of mobile networks will be required for 5G roll-out. To this end, DoT has taken a number of initiatives. The right of way (RoW) policy has been modified and made simpler. Recently, another amendment has been made mainly with the aim of promoting 5G. The use of street furniture has been allowed. The cost for laying any underground structure has been defined as Rs 1,000 per km and Rs 10,000 for each tower.
Further, the government launched the Gati Shakti portal to enable GIS mapping infrastructure of all the departments on a single platform by way of different layers. DoT has taken the initiative and has mapped all telecom towers and optical fibre cables (OFCs) on the Gati Shakti portal. It has also launched the Gati Shakti Sanchar portal (also known as the Sugam Sanchar portal) with an aim to facilitating faster processing of RoW applications in the states. The launch of the portal has reduced the delay in RoW approvals. Earlier, the delay was as much as one year, which has drastically come down to less than 15 days. Meanwhile, fiberisation of towers has been a concern and necessary steps are being undertaken towards that. We expect the issue to subside as new references sent to TRAI are taken up.