The year 2022 saw an increased focus on strengthening internet and broadband coverage across the country. The laun­ch of 5G services was a major milestone ac­hieved during the year. Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio launched their respective 5G services in October and early November, with Airtel claiming over a million subscribers and Jio expanding its 5G coverage to over 100 cities across the country.

Fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) also re­ma­i­n­ed a focus area during 2022 as the de­mand for high speed connectivity remain­ed high. Apart from this, public Wi-Fi gained traction during the year as the government focused its efforts on setting up public Wi-Fi hotspots through the Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) mission. There was also considerable progress recorded under the BharatNet project.

A look at the key developments across the internet and broadband space during 2022 and the future outlook…

Ensuring broadband reach through PM-WANI

In 2022, public Wi-Fi emerged as a successful means of enhancing broadband pro­liferation among the masses. For India, too, public Wi-Fi was seen as a low-cost option for reaching unserved citizens. To this end, the PM-WANI initiative witnessed key developments during the year.

According to the latest data on PM-WANI central registry, the government de­p­loyed almost 137,137 Wi-Fi hotspots, with 145 active public data office (PDO) aggregators. Delhi recorded the highest nu­mber of PM-WANI hotspots, to the tu­ne of 30,740, while Karnataka and Maha­rashtra reported 18,762 and 15,347 public Wi-Fi hotspots respectively, towards the close of the year. Besides, states with the lowest number of PM-WANI Wi-Fi hot­spots include Mizoram (1), Manipur (9) and Sikkim (13).

Among states, the Tamil Nadu government commenced a feasibility study to provide Wi-Fi connections at nominal rates to residents who live within a 200 metre radius of ration shops. The initiative aligned with the PM-WANI scheme that envisages converting ration shops into hotspot hubs to provide affordable internet connections to the general public. In a similar move, the Uttar Pradesh go­vernment planned to introduce PDO booths at all authorised ration shops. The PDO booths prove to be useful in congested and densely populated areas for stable and high speed internet services through public Wi-Fi.

In May 2022, RailTel launched the PM-WANI scheme-based access of its public Wi-Fi services across 100 railway stations having 2,384 Wi-Fi hotspots. These stations are spread across 22 states and include 71 categories of A1, A stations and 29 stations of other categories. Mean­while, Bharat Sa­n­char Nigam Limited (BSNL) unveiled its plan to migrate 30,000 of its Wi-Fi hot­spots to the PM-WANI framework.

Progress under the BharatNet project

As per the government’s data, 184,399 gram panchayats (GPs) in the country were made service-ready with broadband infrastructure under BharatNet, as of Novem­ber 28, 2022. The scope of the BharatNet project has recently been extended to all inhabited villages beyond GPs. Among states, Uttar Pradesh recorded the highest number of GPs with Wi-Fi infrastructure in place, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Ma­ha­rashtra, Rajasthan and Punjab. Uttar Pradesh also accounted for the highest nu­mber of active users, approximately 0.8 mi­llion. At the same time, Chhattisgarh had 3,664 service-ready GPs, of which 3,662 were operational Wi-Fi hotspots. Fur­­ther, 96 per cent of service-ready GPs in Punjab provided operational Wi-Fi services, with the average data consumption crossing 10 GB. Karnataka, Haryana, Ma­dhya Prade­sh, Himachal Pradesh, Gu­jarat, Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Chandigarh and Kerala were some of the states/union territories wh­e­re over 50 per cent of the service-ready GPs have operational Wi-Fi services. Further, the Tamil Nadu government co­mmenced work to lay optical fibre cable for the BharatNet project at an estimated cost of Rs 16.28 billion in the state.

FTTH continues to gain momentum

FTTH continued to remain in the limelight during 2022. India hit a 13-month high fixed broadband median download speed of 48.78 Mbps during September 2022. The year 2022 also witnessed Jio surpassing BSNL to be the largest fixed line broadband provider. The segment had been dominated by BSNL since its inception about 20 years ago. In a major move, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) reportedly scrapped mandatory testing for certain broadband equipment including routers, cordless phones, transmission terminal equipment and local area network (LAN) switches and moved these products to a self-certification regime, in a bid to speed up broadband penetration in the country.

Further, Airtel launched its FTTH broadband service – Airtel Xstream Fibre – in Ladakh and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, with the aim to increase broadband penetration along border areas. Me­an­while, RailTel Corporation of India achieved the milestone of 100,000 FTTH broadband internet users in Tamil Nadu. Also, the company allowed customers ac­cess to its retail broadband, RailWire, to use broadband plans on RailTel’s Wi-Fi net­work across 6,105 railway stations in the country without the need to buy prepaid Wi-Fi plans. Moreover, during 2022, the Goa government announced that the FTTH project to provide internet connectivity to every household in Goa will soon resume.

Internet exchanges grow

Internet exchanges, which gained significance during the pandemic, continued to witness growing traction during the ye­ar. According to government data, as of December 2022, 42 internet exchan­ges of the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) were operational. In a bid to im­prove the overall Indian internet eco­sys­tem and give internet users access at a low cost with improved speed, NIXI disclosed its plan to install such internet exc­hanges in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities in the near future.

Meanwhile, Extreme IXP expanded its points of presence (PoPs) across Bengaluru city with immediate effect. The company deployed three PoPs in Electronic City, two in Whitefield and one in Basavanagudi within Bengaluru city to ensure en­han­ced port utilisation to almost 3Tbps and th­roughput to almost 1.5 Tbps. Separately, DE-CIX India also established a new PoP at Yotta’s uptime institute Tier 4 certified facility – Yotta NM1 in Panvel. In order to meet the escalating connectivity demands and growing data consumption across all verticals, these newly added PoPs are believed to act as facilitators for local ISPs to extend faster and more affordable internet service to customers.

Finally, 5G

In the wireless space, the launch of 5G remained the highlight during 2022. With the government successfully concluding the 5G spectrum auction on August 1, 2022, fifth-generation telecom services were launched on October 1, 2022 and ro­ll­ed out to the first 13 cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Benga­luru, Chandigarh, Gurugram, Hyderabad, Luck­now, Pune, Gandhi­nagar, Ahmeda­bad and Jamnagar. During the year, Airtel and Jio remained focused on expediting their network roll-out. Airtel aims to roll out 5G services in most parts of the country by March 2023 and in the entire country by March 2024, while Jio aims to cover the entire country on its 5G network by Dec­ember 2023. Both operators are partnering with local and global firms to en­sure smooth roll-outs and better network management.

4G remains prevalent

Along with focus on expediting the roll-out of the 5G network in major cities, operators took interest to extend 4G coverage to some of the underserved areas. For instance, Airtel launched 4G mobile se­rvice in Kaksar, the border village of Kar­gil district in Ladakh. Jio, meanwhile, expan­ded the reach of its 4G voice and data services in the Ladakh region to Sp­ang­mik village, located in the vicinity of Pangong Lake. Besides, the government approved BSNL’s plan to proceed with a deal worth Rs 262.81 billion with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) for rolling out the telco’s 4G network. Separately, DoT unveiled its plan to expand 4G coverage to over 24,600 villages, mostly located in remote and far-flung areas, by Dec­ember 2023. Moreover, Skipper Limited secured fresh new orders valuing Rs 25.7 billion from BSNL for the supply and erection of ground-based telecom towers, IaaSPs (infrastructure-as-a-service-provi­der) for supply, installation of infrastructure items and subsequent operations and maintenance in the uncovered villages under 4G saturation projects.

Connecting the unconnected

During 2022, the government took a number of measures to ensure sufficient connectivity and broadband penetration to the remotest parts of the country. In May 2022, the central government allocated a project worth Rs 36.83 billion to Airtel and Jio for providing 4G mobile services in uncovered villages of aspirational districts. Under the proposed project, Airtel was entrusted to install 1,083 mobile towers with an expenditure of Rs 8.48 billion in Jharkhand and Maharashtra and Jio was to roll out 3,696 towers for Rs 28.36 billion. Separately, in June 2022, the Union cabinet approved a project worth Rs 263.16 billion for the provision of 4G mo­bile services in all uncovered villages of the country. The project entails upgrading 2G/3G connectivity to 4G in 6,279 villages, in a bid to accomplish the target to provide 4G mobile services in 24,680 un­covered villages in remote and difficult areas. Further, the cabinet reportedly app­ro­v­ed the upgradation of 2G mobile sites to 4G in Naxal-hit areas at a cost of Rs 24.26 billion. Under this, in total, 2,542 mo­bile towers will be upgraded across 10 states. Meanwhile, the Chhattis­garh government signed an MoU with BSNL for providing free internet facility through Wi-Fi in 108 villages of Bastar district. The agreement, signed as part of the sta­te’s “Bastar Con­nect” initiative, will see 73 villages in the Bas­tar development block and 35 villages in the Tokapal developme­nt block getting free internet service.

Outlook for 2023

Going forward, the year 2023 is expected to witness operators pushing the pedal on 5G roll-outs. The year 2023 is also poised to see 6G developments as research and development for this new-generation technology has already begun. However, it remains to be seen how operators will en­sure connectivity and broadband services to far-flung areas of the country in order to realise the country’s vision of “Bro­ad­band for All”.

Anand Kumar Sah