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Low fiberisation, telecom equipment availability affecting network coverage expansion

At a time when telecom operators are working to extend 5G coverage, their representatives believe that issues such as low fiberisation, telecom-infra related permission issues, and equipment availability challenges are creating a problem.

According to Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents major telecom operators, irrespective of a 4G or a 5G network, availability of radio equipments and network to support the radios are major challenges which the industry is facing.

“We have been clamouring that fiberisation of towers is a crying need, even towerisation is a problem and both of these get tied up to RoW (right-of-way) related permissions,” said S P Kochhar, director general of COAI. “So that is a battle that has been going on for many years. It is being addressed by the government undoubtedly, but even the government realises that it is not happening at that speed.”

While Kochhar highlighted policy mismatch between the central government and local bodies as a reason for RoW-related issues, he hopes that the upcoming Telecom Bill will address the issues completely.

Tower fiberisation, which means connecting towers through optical fiber cables, is a key requirement for supporting high-speed 5G network and carrying high-capacity data. Currently, India has about only 33% of towers connected to fibre.

The telecom operators are facing challenges due to delay in supply of equipments from the off-shore vendors in terms of shift in focus from China.

“This is an interim phase where supply will be lesser than demand because it is coming from the offshore companies which are not geared up…the production has not geared up to meet such a large demand,” Kochhar said, adding that in near term these companies will not only start production in India but also export the equipments from India.

Comments from Kochhar also assume significance on the back of target given by communications minister Ashwini Vaishnaw to telecom operators for increasing the base transceiver stations (BTS) to 10,000 per week from 2.500 per week for increasing the 5G coverage. BTS is a radio equipment used to facilitate communication between network and consumer devices like mobile phone.

“He (the minister) has given a target which the industry is bending over backwards to meet. At the backend he is very conscious of the challenges also and he is working overtime to see that those challenges are also addressed,” Kochhar said.

“Physically everything takes time and then getting it implemented on the ground takes further time. We also want maximum amount of consumers to reach out so that our revenues grow but practicalities have to be taken into it,” he said.

Currently, telecom operators Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio have launched 5G services in some parts of the country. Within days of the launch of 5G services last month, many consumers complained about the 5G network speeds and non-availability of the services even in the 5G-enabled handsets.

While part of the problem was related to software upgrades in the handsets by smartphone companies, lack of network coverage from the telcos’ side was also a key reason for a bad user experience.

“Consumers are facing problem because tower-to-tower connectivity is not what it should be. People want good connectivity (both 4G and 5G) but they don’t want a tower to be put up anywhere near them because of misplaced fear of EMF (electronic magnetic field emissions from towers). So how can you have both,” Kochhar said.

According to department of telecommunications (DoT), there is no scientific evidence that emissions from towers is affecting the human health and in India emissions from a mobile tower are below the limits prescribed by the international agencies.

“We are willing to put towers at various locations give them better connectivity but they don’t let us put towers at the citizen level at the local government level. They don’t commit, that’s a major challenge,” he said. PTI

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