Our Hon’ble Prime Minister has envisioned the Digital India mission as a top priority and a lot of efforts have been undertaken by the government as well as private sector to realize this mission. The growth trajectory of India’s telecom sector has been unprecedented with more than a billion mobile connections. However, the ubiquitous broadband connectivity to all, one of the core pillars of Digital India, has not witnessed stupendous progress and remains a challenge.
The fundamental requirement to deliver ubiquitous broadband connectivity is a robust fiber backhaul, which provides unlimited capacity and higher speeds, and governments across the globe are making disproportionate investments in building this infrastructure.
India continues to remain a highly under-fiberized country providing connectivity to less than 30 percent of mobile towers and 7 percent of our homes, in contrast to China where fiber connectivity is available to more than 99 percent of mobile towers, 70 percent homes, and all of private and government buildings.
To support the growing wireless data consumption, which stands 7.8 billion GB per month, and new technologies e.g. AR, VR, connected cars, advance remote healthcare solutions, backhaul connectivity through fiber is must. Through the NDCP-2018, government has decided to implement a Fiber First Initiative to take fiber to the home, to enterprises and to key development institutions in Tier I, II, and III towns and to rural clusters.
The major bottlenecks for low fiber penetration in India have been the difficulties, delays, and costs associated with the process of obtaining Right of Way (RoW) permissions from various state/local authorities. While, the RoW rules, aimed at expediting the deployment of telecom infrastructure, but its implementation across States have not been on expected lines.
If the government wants to accelerate the fiber rollout, RoW charges should be abolished for at least next 2-3 years and only the restoration or reinstatement charges should be levied. More cost effective means of fiber deployment such as aerial fiber need be permitted in near to medium term and all state governments should implement the RoW, 2016 rules in its letter and spirit. All infrastructure sectors must include, in their construction design for new projects, a provision for a utility duct to enable fiber laying and adopt similar measures in existing projects in a dig only once policy approach. Building by-laws which currently deem only electricity, water and fire safety as necessary infrastructure, should mandatorily include ducts/optical with well-defined access mechanisms in all upcoming office complexes, commercial spaces and residential complexes for the issuance of a completion certificate.
While fiber is one of the critical components to connect and build a Digital India, Microwave Spectrum acts as an equally important enabler. Microwave deployment is cheaper, easier to maintain, can provide higher coverage and capacity and is a sustainable solution to enable high quality broadband services both in urban and rural India. However, the backhaul spectrum allocation to the TSPs which is necessary to support the high speed data services is abysmally low.
In a country, where mobile data consumption is highest in the world, more than 70 percent of microwave spectrum is unallocated across 13/18/21 GHz.
To deliver high speed and better experience to the users and to ensure connectivity in difficult terrains where fiber deployment is not feasible, government needs to immediately frame the policy for allocation of E&V bands to facilitate backhaul connectivity for 4G and 5G services. Also, the existing microwave policy for 13/18/21 GHz bands should also be reviewed wherein more carriers (presently, it restricts TSPs up to 4 in metro and Category A circles and 3 in Category B and C circles) can be given apart from giving wider spots of 56 MHz/ 112 MHz of spectrum to the TSPs.
Government also needs to take the exercise of harmonization of existing microwave spectrum link. The spectrum sharing policy should also be extended to the backhaul spectrum which will allow two operators to come together to have a common and wider backhaul bandwidth. These steps will further improve the quality of services significantly.
I dream of Digital India where access of information knows no barrier.