Digital India is unfolding and India’s digital footprint is fast growing in the world with a potential to reach one trillion USD by 2025. Undoubtedly, the National Telecom Policy rechristened as the National Digital Communication Policy (NDCP) 2018 is an overarching forward looking and reformative comprehensive policy to transform India into a digital society. The policy has a 360-degree focus keeping in view the entire telecom ecosystem for enabling futuristic technologies such as expansion of 4G, 5G, fiberstation, cloud computing, block chain, M2M, IoT, AI, and VR. The policy broadly focuses on enabling ease of doing business and envisages light touch regulations, easy compliances, rationalization of taxes and levies, right of way (RoW) approvals at the state level, and security of physical infrastructure.
The policy envisions transition to a digitally enabled society by deployment of digital infrastructure and services as they are the critical enablers of a country’s growth and well-being. With the objective of creating a vibrant competitive telecom market and strengthen India’ competitiveness, the policy will serve the digital needs of the aspiring nation.
The NDCP 2018 is based on three pillars, that is Connect India, Propel India, and Secure India.
- Connect India talks about universal broadband coverage at 50 Mbps, 1 GBps connectivity to all gram panchayats of India by 2020 and 10 GBps by 2022, enabling 100 MBps broadband on demand, provisioning of public wi-fi hotspots to 5 million by 2020 and 10 million by 2022;
- Propel India talks about attracting investments of USD 100 billion in next five years, increasing contribution toward global value chains, creating globally recognized IPRs, training/re-skilling 1 million manpower for building new age skills, expanding the IoT ecosystem to 5 billion connected devices, and accelerating transition to industry 4.0. This seems to be a conservative figure if we compare with China which spends close to 70–80 billion USD per year; and
- Secure India talks about a comprehensive data protection regime for digital communications, ensuring net neutrality principles, developing and deploying robust digital communication network security frameworks, building capacity for security testing, and addressing security issues of physical infrastructure.
The Indian telecommunication sector has gone through a revolutionary transition in the last two decades to become the world’s second largest telecommunication market. We have a telecom network comprising 4.71 lakh telecom towers housing 18 lakh BTSs which enables connectivity with more than 1.2 billion subscribers. Further, the telecom sector contributes nearly 6.0 percent to India’s GDP and the policy envisions to enhance the contribution to 8.0 percent by 2022.
The Indian telecom tower infrastructure industry continues to face challenges that impede telecom infrastructure’s roll-out. Issues such as absence of state tower policy aligned with central government rules/guidelines, delay in issuing permissions due to lack of online single window clearance, restriction on location of telecom infrastructure, exorbitantly high and multiple charges, ad-hoc coercive actions by local bodies, and dispute resolution mechanism (setting up of STC and DTC) are some of the key challenges being faced by the telecom infrastructure industry.
These hindrances have slowed down the deployment of telecom infrastructure as the sector could install only around 21,000 mobile towers during the annual year 2016-17.
Now, with the NDCP 2018 the IP-1 industry sees a ray of hope as the policy addresses some of the key issues of the industry by:
- Enhancing scope of IP-1s. The policy encourages sharing of active infrastructure by enhancing the scope of infrastructure providers (IP) and promoting deployment of common sharable, passive as well as active, infrastructure. This will accelerate the process of provisioning the ready for utilization telecom infrastructure and will significantly reduce the capital expenditure and operational expenditure by promoting the sharing concept;
- Ferberization of towers. At present, about 20 percent of mobile towers in India are fiberized and in order to extend world class high-speed internet connectivity around 75–80 percent of mobile towers will have to fiberized, to match the global benchmark of countries like United States of America, China, and Japan;
- In order to match India with its global counterparts, the NDCP 2018 proposes to set up a National Fiber authority which will be responsible for both underground and over ground telecom infrastructure. Further, it talks about facilitating the fiber-to-the-tower program to enable fiberization of at least 60 percent base stations thereby accelerating migration to 4G/5G, incentivizing and promoting fiber connectivity for all new construction and encouraging investment in broadband infrastructure through fiscal incentives, including accelerated depreciation and tax incentives; and incentivizing fixed line broadband, and making future buildings digitally ready through earmarked spaces for digital infrastructure installation. Most importantly, telecom optic fiber cables will be accorded with the status of public utility;
- Establishment of mobile towers and RoW. It is important to mention that RoW rules were notified by the central government in November, 2016 to ensure smooth provisioning of telecom infrastructure across the nation. However, there are only ten states that are aligned and rest are yet to align their respective policies with the said rules. This impacts the overall provisioning of telecom infrastructure across the nation;
- Now, the NDCP 2018 has categorically mentioned extension of incentives and exemptions for the construction of telecom towers, RoW permissions for telecom towers in government premises, and creating a collaborative institutional mechanism between center, states, and local bodies for common RoW, standardization of costs and timelines; and removal of barriers to approvals
- Security of digital communication infrastructure. Security threats to critical mobile tower infrastructure is a threat to the Digital India mission. There are numerous cases of diesel pilferage, vandalism, and battery larceny;
- This impacts the overall network connectivity thereby impacting the flagship initiatives of the Indian government such as Digital India, Financial Inclusion, and Smart City;
- The policy has expressed its intention for addressing this solemn issue by assuring security of overall digital communications infrastructure including security of physical infrastructure;
- Approach toward sustainable telecommunications. The Indian tower infrastructure industry as a fundamental responsibility has deployed more than 1 lakh diesel free sites (sites consuming a liter of diesel a day, using solar cooling units, lithium batteries, simple power panels, fuel cells, and FCUs). The telecom tower industry is aggressively aiming to use alternate energy resources to reduce its dependence on diesel;
- The policy further strengthens the industry’s commitment toward developing the green sustainable telecommunication by mentioning promotion of solar and green energy solution deployment for telecom towers, encouraging use of small cell fuel and Li-ion batteries;
- Other legislative reforms. The policy also talks about amending and tweaking the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 and other relevant acts, restructuring of legal, licensing, and regulatory frameworks for reaping the benefits of convergence. The legislative reforms are aimed at establishing a robust policy framework to enhance the ease of doing business for the
sector as well as cater to the next-generation technologies;
- These benefits will stich world class telecommunication services with the thread of robust telecom infrastructure to provide ubiquitous telecom connectivity to every nook and corner of the country. In the coming years, the NDCP 2018 policy once finalized, will present a plethora of business opportunities for the telecom tower infrastructure industry such as installation of mobile towers for 5G provisioning and expansion of 4G, laying optical fiber cable, developing smart cities, shared duct infrastructure, and proliferation of public wi-fi hotspots;
- In a nutshell, the NDCP 2018 is a supreme reference document which once notified will prepare citizens of India for the future, keeping our youth at par with the world;
- Now that the policy has been notified, the implementation and execution of NDCP 2018 policy will be the most critical attributes to drive the development of the whole telecommunication ecosystem in the right direction. If done timely, the policy will provide the impetus, required thrust, and augurs extremely positive for upcoming technologies like 5G, AI, IoT, M2M, and VR. This will add impetus in realizing the overarching initiatives of the Indian government such as Digital India and Broadband for All; and
- Further, there will be a need to set up a review mechanism to monitor the implementation of the policy. It is well-known that the proof of the pudding is in the eating.