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India moves toward leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Ushering in an era of ultra-high-speed internet on mobile phones, Bharti Airtel launched 5G services in eight major cities on October 1, with the promise to cover maximum areas by March 2023 and the entire country by March 2024. RJio launched the services in four cities, and will complete the pan India rollout by end of 2023. BSNL will upgrade its yet-to-be-launched 4G services to 5G by August 2023.

And now a huge word of caution. 1.5 million towers are yet to be installed, as are 5G radios on towers. Only 35.1 percent of the existing 727,000 towers are fiberized, the requisite target is 70 percent, CapEx implication being `6 trillion. This includes deployment of 250,000 small cells, from the current 100,000. Additionally, by 2024-25, the need for network densification will entail the deployment of 1000 base stations every square kilometer. Use cases for 5G are limited and in nascent stages, and the telcos are hesitant to charge higher pricing for 5G services.

Shifting gears, the draft Telecom Bill seems to be heading for a major controversy. With an aim to bring the entire digital regulatory system to the level of global standards, and make telecom sector future ready, the Bill in its present form requires major clarity in defining what services will be included in the Bill; how identity verification will be handled; and the excess powers being granted to the Center and to the DoT. The proposal eliminates the need for the government to seek TRAI’s recommendation before issuing a license to a service provider, hence diluting the regulator’s consultative role to a recommendatory one. It also proposes to increase compliance for all stakeholders and extend licensing to more players, with OTT services, satellite-based communication services, internet & broadband services, and in-flight & maritime connectivity services coming under its ambit. Bringing into its fold, apps of e-commerce, banking, gaming, and social media, any platform where there is two-way messaging, B2B entities as network equipment vendors, data centers, and CDNs are an attempt to get global tech companies to contribute license fees. Auction is listed as the primary method of allocating spectrum, completely out of sync with international regulatory developments. Currently comments from the stakeholders are sought, and once the Bill is framed as Indian Telecommunications Act 2022, will govern the telecom sector.

A coherent policy initiative is critical for India to realize its potential to lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There is many a slip twixt the cup and the lip!

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