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RoW – Paving the path to robust digital services in India

India has emerged powerfully as one of the leading digital economies of the world, riding on the waves of technological advancements and tremendous growth of telecommunications across its vast and diverse expanse. As we celebrate this remarkable growth story, and further set our sights on more ambitious future goals, it is equally important to address specific challenges to ensure continued development of this essential infrastructure sector. Among these challenges, one of the most prominent is the deployment of physical infrastructure – particularly, the aspect of right of way (RoW), which becomes crucial for fostering connectivity, leading to digital transformation and socio-economic growth.

Understanding RoW
Right of way (RoW) refers to the rights accorded to telecom and internet service providers (TSPs/ISPs) to establish the necessary infrastructure, such as laying cables and setting up cell towers on public and private land.

India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has been proactive in addressing RoW challenges, resulting in the notification of the Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules in 2016 and its subsequent amendments. The policy paved the way for smoother permissions and standardization of charges for infrastructure deployment to strengthen the establishment and expansion of digital services, and catalyze the deployment of new technologies like 5G.

Significance of RoW in establishing robust digital services
RoW provisions can help in establishing wider connectivity across the geographies by constructing the required infrastructure in requisite areas. It becomes particularly important in the context of fiber optic networks, which form the backbone of high-speed internet. Laying of fiber optic cables requires access to public right of way. Efficient and streamlined RoW policies enable quicker and more extensive deployment of fiber networks, thus ensuring better connectivity.

Effective RoW frameworks help in fostering cooperation between the service providers and the policy makers. It also ensures a transparent regulatory environment encouraging more investment and growth. With India’s digital landscape evolving at a swift pace, facilitated by programs like Digital India, RoW becomes essential in ensuring this digital proliferation reaches every nook and corner of the country. The execution of RoW rights directly impacts the expansion of network infrastructure, and consequently, the quality, reliability, and robustness of digital services.

Current state of affairs – The fiberization conundrum
At present, the fiberization of towers in India, which is crucial for efficient 5G services, stands at an inadequate 35 percent. For the provision of effective 5G services, this figure needs to see a significant surge to at least 70 percent. Even as the government has introduced amendments to the RoW rules to facilitate faster telecom infrastructure deployments, implementation continues to face setbacks due to challenges posed by local entities, municipal corporations, and wards. The gap between policy and practice persists, and needs to be narrowed down significantly in order to achieve the required goals in a timely manner.

Furthermore, among the states and union territories, only 18 have embraced the Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules 2016 and RoW 2022 amendments. Even within this group, many states have not fully aligned their policies with the central RoW 2022 amendments. This lack of alignment is primarily visible in the charges for permission and non-incorporation of vital clauses.
Challenges to RoW implementation

  • Policy-related challenges. Despite the RoW Amendment Rules 2022 stipulations regarding various administrative charges for tower permission, optical fiber cable (OFC) laying and use of poles belonging to state government or state entities, certain states impose additional application fees beyond these administrative charges. In other scenarios, pole rentals exceed the prescribed rates, leading to an increase in the cost of infrastructure deployment.
    Discrepancies in policy alignment also exist between state-level regulations and the practices followed by autonomous entities and local municipal bodies, which often adhere to their own byelaws. Some states completely deny permissions for aerial fiber, while others permit but subsequently cut aerial fibers stating reasons like Smart City projects or G-20 initiatives.
    Several states levy property taxes on mobile towers, increasing the cost of infrastructure. Similarly, certain states demand high fees for the regularization of existing telecom infrastructures, adding further financial strain on the industry.
  • Operational challenges. On-ground challenges like crowded localities, existing underground utilities, and refusal of permission in specific areas by municipal authorities act as barriers for telecom service providers, compelling them to look for the maintenance-intensive aerial fiber deployment options. Organizing new deployment work without disturbing existing entities is a challenging issue to resolve.
    Restrictions on self-restoration post digging and high restoration charges, which get multifold for newly laid roads, add to the burden. In some areas, the restoration charges can escalate to approximately Rs 1 crore per kilometer, rendering projects economically unviable.
    There’s also a non-scientific fear factor at play, with certain pockets expressing apprehensions about the adverse health effects of electromagnetic field (EMF) emissions from network elements installed on telecom towers. This unscientific concern is often manipulated by vested interests, impacting the deployment of telecom infrastructure.
  • Institutional challenges. Institutionally, several shortcomings hinder effective RoW implementation. The lack of enforcement of the RoW 2022 Rules, which includes a deemed-approval clause, hampers the application process in some states. The clause suggests that if an application is not approved or rejected within 60 days, it should be considered as approved.
    A defined policy for telecom infrastructure is also awaited in many areas under the central ministries. Moreover, high charges and restrictions discourage necessary deployments. Entities like airports and metro-rail establishments tend to maximize revenue through tenders, increasing outflows for the industry and potentially impacting the overall charges passed on to the citizens.

Mapping the route to a robust digital infrastructure
Despite the multitude of challenges, the path toward a robust digital infrastructure in India is still achievable. Here are some measures that could prove pivotal in this journey:

  1. Swift adoption of central RoW rules. States and local authorities need to adopt the central RoW rules in letter and spirit to standardize costs and streamline the process of infrastructure deployment. This would also help attract investors.
  2. Common ducts. Introducing common ducts laid by the authorities, which can be shared with TSPs or IP-1s at minimum rentals, can address logistical issues involved in laying fiber in densely populated or restricted areas. This will ensure faster and better networks in crowded localities without interrupting the existing infrastructure.
  3. State government engagement. The regular conducting of State Broadband Committees and District Level Committee meetings will ensure prompt resolution of issues and enable timely policy implementations. These meetings can act as a platform for comprehensive discussions and decision making, which is imperative for efficient execution of RoW.
  4. Enforcement of deemed-approval clause. Rigorous enforcement of the deemed-approval clause across all states will expedite the application process and aid faster infrastructure deployment.
  5. Government land for telecom infrastructure. Prioritizing the placement of telecom infrastructure on government land and buildings can expedite the deployment process and even help in optimum utilization of vacant government spaces.
  6. Strict penalties for disruption. Digital infrastructure should be protected as a critical national asset, and harsh penalties should be imposed on individuals who damage these resources to discourage such acts and ensure safety of the infrastructure.

The vision of robust digital services for all in India pivots on the efficient and effective implementation of the RoW policy. While the path is riddled with challenges at various levels, a strategic blend of policy alignment, process optimization, infrastructural enhancements, and public awareness can help navigate these hurdles. As the world advances toward technologies like 5G, India must ensure its digital infrastructure keeps pace to reap the manifold benefits that these advancements promise. To do so, telecom infrastructure needs to be looked at as building a national asset, and not as a mere revenue generation opportunity. Accessible communication infrastructure is what will drive economic growth and development for the nation, while also helping achieve sustainability goals through energy efficiency. A unified effort from all stakeholders is vital to turn this vision into a reality, creating a digitally empowered nation.

This article is authored by Lt. Gen. Dr. SP Kochhar, Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). Views expressed are personal.

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