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'Stronger Govt Push Needed To Build At Least 50% Towers On Fibre': COAI

Lt. Gen. Dr S. P. Kochhar, Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) talks to ASHISH SINHA about the future of 5G roll-out, spectrum pricing, issues related to Right of Way and the challenges faced by the telecommunication sector

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Lt. Gen. Dr S. P. Kochhar, Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI)


What is the outlook for the telecom industry?
The future outlook of the telecom industry is rolling-out 5G in full swing, capacitated by the pro-growth policies of the government. A 5G enabled environment would help India to run with the pace of the world. By 2027, 5G will represent around 39 per cent of mobile subscriptions in India, with an estimated 500 million subscriptions1. The Indian market needs to get ready for 5G-enabled devices to have a successful roll-out in the near future. Apart from the developments and pro­spects of 5G in India, the year 2022 will pave the way for various other new-age technologies such as internet of things, big data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), drone technology coupled with 5G technology, which will positively impact various sectors. For example, these technologies will boost the agricultural sector by improving the yield, bringing transparency across the value chain, ensuring smarter supporting infrastructure while also increasing farm returns. The integration of technology in the classroom is the key to educating and skilling students for success. AR and VR will change the educational landscape by making learning more engrossing and tech oriented.

How is small cell deployment critical in 5G deployment in India?

A small cell is a low-cost radio access point with low radio frequency (RF) power output, footprint and range which can be installed indoors and outdoors. The key benefit to the deployment of small cells is that it effectively allows networks to be densified, patching coverage holes, optimizing signal strength, and improving capacity in line with growing consumer demand and of course, meeting the needs of 5G connectivity. They are cost-effective, easy to deploy, and sustainable. Deploying small cells on street furniture will give us a ready-made environment for 5G roll-out. The GSMA forecast that 5G technologies will make an overall contribution of approximately $450 billion to the Indian economy (0.6% of GDP by 2040) and will reach 88 million 5G connections by 2025. Small cells have not been included in RoW rules yet and one of the key challenges for rolling out telecom infrastructure in India has been identified as the ‘Right of Way’ (RoW) permissions. Small cells can be a solution for the densely populated areas of India as they are nimble, can be installed quickly, and are much more cost-effective than conventional towers.

What are the new challenges faced by the Indian Telecom Industry in 2022?
By far, the biggest challenge that the Indian Telecom Industry faces is spectrum availability and Spectrum affordability. India has one of the lowest spectrum holdings of about 62-79 MHz per Operator in the Sub 3 GHz band as compared to other Asian countries and does not have even sufficient spectrum in 3.5GHz for 5G deployments. The earlier recommended reserve price by TRAI is way too high as compared to other countries in the 3.5 GHz band. Hence, there is a need to release a sufficient spectrum for 5G that is harmonized and affordable. We are hopeful that in response to the recent consultation held by TRAI, the Authority will make suitable recommendations on pricing as well as availability of spectrum. With the expected rollout of 5G in 2022, there are some key challenges that the Indian market faces such as less market of 5G enabled devices, non-uniform RoW charges across states, irrational regulatory levies such as LF, SUC, USO levy and costs. Government is yet to allocate high capacity backhaul E-band and V-band to eliminate the issue of backhaul, as only 34% of BTS sites have been connected to fibre networks in the country. There is a lack of centralised regulated frameworks and single-window online portals for monitoring or managing digital growth, which causes this lag in implementation.

Please share your insights about Illegal boosters?
Mobile Signal Boosters: A signal booster is essentially a device that amplifies the mobile phone signal strength within its vicinity. It is used by TSPs in areas where there is weak or inconsistent signal strength. This is done after thorough study of the network and the area where it has to be deployed. Citizens are unaware that Installation, possession and selling of MSB by anyone except the TSPs is an illegal and Punishable offence under Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 and India Telegraph Act, 1885. Signal boosters and repeaters are associated with the degradation of mobile signals and lead to decrease in overall network quality in the areas they are installed. MSB interferes with the free spectrum available to the operators which results in call drops and drop in call quality. Buying of MSB is illegal and after the device is placed in a house or office, it will hamper existing signals and diminish network quality. Citizens need to be made aware about the right way of installing MSBs legally by duly approaching the Telecom Service Providers. There is a need for the institutional mechanism to take legal action against the miscreants. Anybody found in possession of illegal boosters will result in confiscation of devices and would be punishable under Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 and India Telegraph Act, 1885.

Was the budget 2022-2023 satisfactory for the Indian Telecom Industry?
The Union Budget of the year 2022-23 was pro-growth and gave impetus to the Digital India initiative. We appreciate the progressive steps taken in encouraging affordable broadband and mobile services through facilitating PLI scheme for 5G equipment, laying optical fibre cables through PPP model under BharatNet project. However, it was a bit disappointing that our long-standing demands remain unaddressed, but we are committed to fulfilling the Digital India Vision of our Honorable PM and having a constructive engagement with the Government for reduction of levies on the telecom sector.

How Govt can optimise the spectrum pricing and allocation process?
The greatest value of spectrum lies in its usage. Idle or unused spectrum benefits no one – the government nor the economy, society or consumers and results in an irretrievable loss.. There is a need to strike a balance between the Government’s aspiration to generate revenue from the auction and orderly growth of the sector and the overarching impact of 5G across the other sectors and the economy at large. The price of spectrum is the key to any efforts that attempt to balance these priorities. Given the fact that in 2016 only 41 per cent and in 2021 only 37.1 per cent of the overall spectrum was sold, we suggest that the Reserve Price should be kept low so as to allow more efficient market discovery of the spectrum price. NDCP 2018 also lays emphasis on “Optimal Pricing of Spectrum to ensure sustainable and affordable access to Digital Communications. There is a need for fresh outlook for the valuation of the spectrum in the forthcoming auction. Any valuation should take into consideration the low level of ARPU/RoCE and income potential in the country. The spectrum valuation should be drastically reduced across various bands to ensure faster deployment of affordable 5G services in the country.

Why is the right allocation of E&V bands necessary for improving backhaul?
V band is a spectrum 57-64 GHz and E band is spectrum 71-76 paired with 81-86 GHz in the electromagnetic spectrum. Spectrum in E & V bands has manifold utilities, whereby it can act both as a high-capacity access spectrum for voice and data services as well as backhaul link spectrum. As an access spectrum, it can deliver data transfer rates of up to 7 Gbps. whereas as backhaul spectrum, it can be used as high capacity focused, point-to-point “pencil beam” links allowing a much higher reuse of the same frequency in a given area & make it suitable for last mile deployments in urban areas.
The government is yet to allocate high capacity backhaul E band and V band to eliminate the issue of backhaul as only 34 per cent of base transceiver station sites have been connected to fibre networks in the country. E & V Band are increasingly being adopted by operators globally to cost-effectively meet mobile broadband backhaul requirements. The V-band and E-band are extremely valuable resources for India for 5G as well as backhaul for mobile broadband, which will enable millions of homes to access high speed broadband for entertainment, education, and work.

Which are the industry issues that have been taken up by COAI with DoT/GoI?
The top three priorities for the industry are spectrum pricing, infrastructure building and licensing. We seek a reduction in the base price as it has been set unnaturally high not only in absolute terms but also in relative terms. TRAI had recommended Rs 492 crore per MHz as base price in India for 3.5 GHz band. In Comparison, the auction determined price in Italy was Rs 182 crore per MHz, Rs 40 crore in the UK, Rs 35 crore in Australia, Rs 14 crore in Spain and just Rs 7 crore in Austria. India has one of the lowest spectrum holdings of about 62-79 MHz per Operator in the Sub 3 GHz band as compared to other Asian countries and does not have even sufficient spectrum in 3.5GHz for 5G deployments making more spectrum available at an affordable price will help narrow the digital divide.

What about the challenges posed from licensing and levies?
We work to implement uniform RoW charges across states, rationalise and regulatory levies such as LF, SUC, USO levy. Government yet has to allocate high capacity backhaul E-band and V-band to eliminate the issue of backhaul, as only 34 per cent of BTS sites have been connected to fibre networks in the country. Moreover, TSPs face rigidity towards submitting documents to WPC/DOT/ Spectrum clearance even for conducting ‘Make in India’ lab trials. Easing up rules and guidelines will facilitate network densification.
The telecom industry needs investment in reliable communication infrastructure to meet the rising demand for connectivity. Only, 34 per cent of our towers are fiberised and there is a need for a stronger push from the government to build at least 50 per cent of sites on fibre. States/UTs are not giving timely approval to TSPs for the installation of underground fibre cables, there is a delay in the execution of RoW rules which in return impedes the process of getting permissions. Reduction in charges for laying optical fiber will accelerate infrastructure deployment. 

Further, simplifying procedures for small cell deployment on street furniture will not only reduce cost but will also provide a ready-made environment for 5G network roll-out that are critical to facilitating seamless network connectivity across India. COAI has also taken up the issues with DoT/GoI that are hindering the roll-out of Digital Infrastructure and its safety like rationalisation of restoration charges across India, notification of RoW Policies of Central agencies in alignment with RoW Rules, 2016, implementation of notified RoW policies of the States/UTs in true spirit, formation of State RoW portals integrated to a central RoW portal, etc.