For the past several years, right of way (RoW) has been the biggest hurdle in the expansion of telecom infrastructure in the country. Tedious RoW approval processes and exorbitant charges have discouraged operators from undertaking significant network roll-outs. In addition, the state governments have their own regulations pertaining to tower installations and the grant of RoW for fibre deployment.
In a bid to resolve these issues and facilitate the deployment of infrastructure by telecom companies, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has released the draft Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules, 2016.
DoT in its draft policy has recognised the fact that delay in providing RoW permissions and high RoW charges impede the development of telecom infrastructure, thereby adversely affecting access to telecom services. Therefore, there is an urgent need to simplify the process of granting RoW permissions and provide these through a single-window clearance system in a transparent and time-bound manner.
The draft rules propose that telecom companies should submit an application in the prescribed format to the authorities concerned and the processing fee for these applications should not exceed Rs 25,000. The authorities will need to examine the applications based on parameters defined under the policy such as mode of execution, time duration of the project, estimated expenses, responsibility for damage, and public safety, and decide on the application within 60 days. No application should be rejected unless the telecom company has been given a chance to explain its position. In case an application is rejected, the authority concerned will have to specify the reason for it in writing. If the application is neither accepted nor rejected within 60 days, it will be deemed approved. Telecom companies will need to make the payment or submit the bank guarantee within 30 days of getting permission and prior to the commencement of work for infrastructure roll-out.
To address the issue of arbitrary rates imposed by various government bodies, DoT has proposed that payments sought by the authorities should be calculated on the basis of the applicable schedule of rates for works of similar nature executed by them from time to time. The authorities should also not impose any fee, charge, lease rental or licence fee other than the expense that the authorities will be incurring as a consequence of the proposed work. For instance, in the case of underground telecom infrastructure, all government agencies/local bodies should levy only reinstatement charges.
The policy proposes that in case of unavoidable circumstances that demand removal of/alteration in the telecom infrastructure laid by a company, the authorities should give the company time to do so and the cost related to the change or removal would have to be borne by the company. Any dispute within the ambit of the policy will have to be directed to the officer concerned in the central government as per the draft policy.
Implications for BharatNet
The formulation of a robust RoW policy is imperative to the success of the BharatNet initiative. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), in its recommendations on the implementation strategy for BharatNet, stated that a major identified risk in the successful execution of the project is the delay in securing RoW permissions. According to TRAI, despite the signing of tripartite agreements between DoT, the state governments and Bharat Broadband Network Limited to facilitate free RoW for laying optical fibre, a number of issues came up at the implementation stage that must necessarily be addressed to prevent delays. In many instances, RoW approvals had to be obtained from multiple authorities, including central government organisations such as the National Highways Authority of India, Indian Railways, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, state governments and local authorities. TRAI has thus recommended that the guaranteed provision of RoW is a necessary and non-negotiable precondition for the successful implementation of BharatNet, subject to the reinstatement of public property to its original condition.
DoT has sought suggestions from state governments and various central government ministries and departments on the draft RoW policy by April 20, 2016 and the final policy is expected to be released by May 2016. It is imperative that in the final policy, DoT strikes the right balance among the demands of all stakeholders. To this end, it is important to formulate a policy that facilitates the laying of telecom infrastructure by operators as well as addresses the concerns of government authorities relating to public inconvenience, structural safety and payment of expenses and compensation.