T.R. Dua, Director General, TAIPA

With the growing focus on digitalisation and 5G, discussions around active infrastructure sharing have picked up. Active infrastructure sharing will provide additional savings in network capex and opex, help cope with increased data and capex requirements, support faster 5G roll-out and facilitate the provision of in-building solutions (IBS) to address the changing traffic patterns. In order to leverage these benefits, the scope of infrastructure providers (IP-1s) will have to be expanded to allow sharing of active network elements.

Policy and regulatory developments

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) have been taking steps to encourage active infrastructure sharing in India. The government allowed active infrastructure sharing to licensed telecom operators in 2016. However, this sharing was limited to base transceiver stations (BTSs), antennas, and feeder cable and transmission systems and did not gain much traction.

TRAI issued recommendations for active infrastructure sharing in 2015, 2017 and 2018. Recently, in March 2020, TRAI recommended enhancing the scope of IP-1s to allow sharing of active elements in the access network. In its recommendations, the regulator has suggested active infrastructure sharing in the radio access network  (RAN) including active network elements required for establishing wireless RAN, wireline access networks and transmission links. The recommendations are currently being reviewed by DoT.

On the policy front, the National Digital Communications Policy [NDCP], 2018 acknowledges the importance of active infrastructure sharing. It aims to encourage and facilitate sharing of active infrastructure by enhancing the scope of IP-1s, and promote and incentivise the deployment of common shareable active as well as passive infrastructure.

Key drivers

Additional savings in capex and opex

Active infrastructure sharing can not only help achieve capex and opex savings for the telecom sector, but also bring in the much-needed capex investments. Various studies have shown that capex/opex savings from active infrastructure sharing are quite significant.

Increased data and capex requirements

The significantly enhanced level of mobile broadband usage in India calls for continuous investments in emerging wireless technologies to enhance capacities. In fact, the NDCP, 2018 has projected investments of around $100 billion by 2023. The policy focuses on investments in telecom infrastructure, fiberisation of mobile networks and increasing access to fixed line broadband. Active infrastructure sharing by independent infrastructure companies can bring in the much-needed investments.

5G roll-out

The cost saving potential of network sharing is even greater for 5G as greenfield deployment is better suited for sharing because it avoids the cost of network consolidation. For instance, the cost of small cell deployment can be reduced by up to 50 per cent if three players share the same network. Further, sharing could solve many practical roadblocks of 5G deployment in urban areas, such as the potential for urban disruption and visual pollution from the installation of excessive equipment and fibre. As 5G deployment is yet to begin in the country, it is the right time to review the regulatory environment to make it conducive for active sharing.

Provision of IBS

Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, traffic demand has shifted from downtown and public areas to suburban residential areas. This can be attributed to the increased trend of work-from-home on account of lockdown restrictions. As the current work from home culture is likely to continue even after the crisis ends, the deployment of IBS will have to be ramped up to provide a good indoor network experience. An independent neutral host like telecom infrastructure providers would be most suited to provide IBS in a non-discriminatory, transparent and cost-effective manner and permit access to all telecom service providers through the sharing model.

The way forward

Net, net, the sharing of active network will reduce the financial burden on telecom operators, thus helping in the creation of robust telecom infrastructure and attracting investments into the sector. This will also significantly improve the quality of service, grant choice of differentiated products to consumers, and allow applications like connected cars and devices to run on the 5G network. Further, the ownership of small cells and IBS/distributed antenna systems should be transferred to IP-1s to cater to the increased data demand and enable non-discriminatory sharing by a neutral host.

Based on a presentation by T.R. Dua, Director General, Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association