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Rajan S Mathews
Director General
COAI

Adequate telecom infrastructure – Key to solving network connectivity issues

India today is the second-largest and the fastest-growing smartphone market in the world. Steady adoption of data consumption on mobile devices is pushing the market by leaps and bounds. However, it must be noted that in spite of India being one of the world’s fastest-growing economy, it is currently plagued with laggard infrastructure and overloaded networks. Telecom operators are leaving no stone unturned in providing uninterrupted connectivity and efficient delivery of communication services to one and all. However, existing challenges are glaring.

It is a common sight in several urban cities as well as in rural areas to see mobile users going from one room to another or walking around neighborhoods in search of better signal strength or better voice quality. Calls get disconnected in the middle of conversations, voice goes inaudible or breaks all of a sudden, mobile internet stops working, amongst a host of other things.

Telecom is the very lifeline of the economy and the government is focused on providing last-mile connectivity. Even the government’s Digital India program squarely pivots on telecom infrastructure and efficient connectivity. As such, in order to make India a digitally empowered knowledge economy of the future, the need of the hour is to do away with these imminent concerns. In fact, call drops and network congestions figure right at the top of all customer complaints combined, and resolving the issue is at the helm of priorities for the telecom department.

These issues are fairly common even in areas that lie in close proximity of telecom towers. Illegal repeaters and ratio of telecom towers with respect to population density, are also adding fuel to the fire. While data being the new oil is driving telecom and digital revolution in the country, call drops and connectivity issues are like a dark blotch on the otherwise bright whiteboard.

As the country braces itself for 5G and other advanced emerging technologies, it is imperative to do away with such issues. The key reason behind inefficient connectivity are underlying issues pertaining to inadequate network infrastructure, restrictions on mobile tower installations, and confusions circling right-of-way (RoW) guidelines. There is a dire need of more mobile towers to iron out such problems, and a well-crafted RoW policy is the only way to fulfil the same.

India currently has a shortfall of 1 lakh mobile towers. For services such as 3G or 4G to flourish, higher-frequency bands (2100 MHz or 2300 MHz instead of 900 MHz) are required, which translates into more tower support. Therefore, restrictions on tower installations, delay by local municipal authorities in granting permissions, and lack of clarity on RoW rules inevitably lead to poor network coverage and increased incidences of call drops. There is an absolute lack of uniform standards, protocols, and procedures when it comes to mobile tower installations.

RoW rules are a key enabler of quickening the process of the placement of underground (optical fiber) and over-ground (mobile towers) infrastructure in India. The rules are crafted to rationalize administrative expenses to a maximum of `1000 per km for fiber,
and a maximum of `10,000 per application for overhead towers. However, they are unlikely to solve problems, owing to lack of clarity and installation bottlenecks. Apart from Haryana, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Kerala, and Odisha, no other state had adopted RoW rules, as stated by the Department of Telecom (DoT). Many experts contend that it may take more than a year till the industry and the consumers start to see real benefits coming out of RoW guidelines.

States such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, and Maharashtra are facing major challenges in tower installations, and a well-defined RoW policy can really flip the roadblock on its head. Policies need to do away with complex rules and regulations in granting of permissions by local authorities, mitigate ununiformed levies, and streamline approvals from state departments. Increased number of towers will play a decisive role in catalyzing the government’s flagship Digital India program, promoting Smart Cities and facilitating financial inclusion.

While the government and the industry have worked in unison to drive widespread adoption of telecom in the country, a lot is still left to be done. The industry had invested a staggering `10.44 crore to build a world-class telecom infrastructure, designed to deliver robust connectivity and digital services. More than 3 lakh base transceiver stations (BTSs) were added in the last one year taking the total number to 22 lakh. The existing number of telecom towers in the country is around 565,000.

It cannot be discounted that efficient communication services can significantly impact economic progress of the nation. The sector currently contributes 6 percent to the GDP. The NDCP 2018 has set a target of 8 percent till 2022.

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