Data is emerging as the focal point of telecom growth in India. The telecom ministry, steered by Manoj Sinha, Minister of State (Independent Charge), is working at a brisk pace to ensure that connectivity reaches the remotest corners of the country and the Digital India vision becomes a reality. The BharatNet project, conceived to bridge the digital divide, has gathered momentum in the past two years. Significant progress has also been made in the roll-out of infrastructure in the Northeast. The government is optimistic that the National Telecom Policy (NTP), expected to be finalised by mid-2018, will help address the industry’s challenges, and usher in growth and stability in the sector. In an exclusive interview with Indian Infrastructure, Sinha talks about the government’s focus areas and priorities…
What have been the key achievements of the government in the past 8-12 months?
I believe that the completion of Phase I of the BharatNet project has been our biggest achievement in the past year. The target of connecting 100,000 gram panchayats was completed in December 2017. The second biggest achievement has been the expansion of the telecom footprint across the country. The number of base transceiver stations has increased to 1,700,000 from approximately 800,000.
The next is the growth of 4G, which telecom service providers are rolling out at a rapid pace. Finally, I would like to point out that the Indian telecom industry, which had been recording losses for the past 16-17 years, reported a profit of Rs 190 million in the last quarter.
What steps are being taken to ease the stress in the sector?
I believe telecom will continue to be a success story, like it has been so far. The trend of declining revenues is definitely worrisome. The government has intervened wherever needed and taken key decisions. One of them is deferred payments for spectrum liabilities. We have increased the number of instalments from 10 to 16, keeping in mind the net present value (of the payment due). Moreover, the spectrum cap has been increased from 25 per cent to 35 per cent.
The companies under stress want a lot of things, but we have our limitations. We have to work within the legal framework. As a responsible government, we have helped the sector a lot and are confident that this will have a positive impact.
Consolidation is a worldwide phenomenon. It has resulted in two to three main players in developed countries. In India, where a lot of investment has been made in the telecom sector, the main players are likely to be Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL), the Vodafone-Idea combine, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited. This will keep the market competitive.
As the telecom minister, what are your key priorities for the sector?
The biggest priority is to complete BharatNet, which was started with the aim of bridging the digital divide. Under the second phase, the remaining 150,000 gram panchayats will be connected. Our target is to complete the project by March 2019, but we will try and complete it in 2018 itself. We have made changes based on the learnings from Phase I, including the involvement of state governments. Eight states have the work for Phase II. We have awarded two engineering, procurement and construction contracts and the remaining work is being done by BSNL and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited.
We are also trying to expedite projects which have been languishing for a long time. For example, the Network for Spectrum project has been work in progress for seven or eight years. We have completed 90 per cent of the work in the past one and a half years and the remaining will be completed soon. With this, our defence establishment will have a secure network. This was the need of the nation and I consider this as the second biggest achievement of the year.
Our prime minister has spoken about the importance of the Northeast. We have formulated a comprehensive telecom plan to fully connect the region. I went there with a team recently and now a senior official will visit the region every month to ensure that the work is on track.
The fourth priority is to complete submarine cable connectivity to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, and Lakshadweep.
Of course, we will allay the doubts about the ongoing consolidation. The NTP 2018 will be a forward-looking policy and will enable the sector to have a successful future.
What are the key challenges faced by the sector, especially in view of the ongoing consolidation? How will they be overcome?
I feel that consolidation will help the sector overcome the challenges. Moreover, the challenges will be addressed in the NTP. We have been able to solve some of the problems but in a sector as big as telecom, the entry of a new player always causes an upheaval, which stabilises within a year. I am convinced that the same will happen this time also.
How prepared is the Indian market for 5G services? What role will the government play in developing a conducive ecosystem for it?
I can confidently say that unlike 3G and 4G, India will not miss the 5G bus. When 5G is launched in the world, India will be at the forefront. Work has already started for setting up a test bed at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Chennai, and is on schedule. A high-level committee has held consultations with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), IIT and various other stakeholders.
Is Phase II of the BharatNet project progressing on schedule?
We learnt a lot during the implementation of Phase I. Lapses such as those in the procurement of gigabit-capable passive optical networks (GPON) will not be a problem any more as we have three vendors now, including C-DOT and Tejas. We now have access to as much GPON as we want.
Will the state governments play a role in the end-use of BharatNet?
We have a federal structure and since the central government does not have a presence in the villages, the state governments have to take the lead and responsibility. We have formed a committee at the centre, headed by the Secretary, Department of Telecommunications, to look into the use cases. The state governments have understood the benefits of BharatNet and shown a lot of interest. Soon we will take a decision so that the state governments can take advantage of this infrastructure for e-commerce, education and health care. We will try and make services available in institutions like the Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas, as well as police stations and primary health centres.
Digital India has been talked about a lot. In your view, when will India be truly digital?
I will consider Digital India to be truly successful when the people living in the remotest
corners of the country are able to use these services. There has been a fair amount of success, but we still have a long way to go and BharatNet will catalyse this journey.
The growing data usage raises questions regarding privacy and security. What steps is the government taking to strengthen the laws?
This will be one of the main issues that will be addressed in the NTP. The current licence agreement has provisions for data privacy and telecom service providers follow it. The department also carries out investigations from time to time. Moreover, the Justice Iyer Committee will address these concerns in its soon-to-be finalised report. I would say that any new technology has teething problems. We have to face them and find solutions. Following global standards and best practices will help everyone.
What will be the role of BSNL in the emerging telecom scenario?
No one should doubt the capability of BSNL. In the past three years, it has reported an operating profit. And now it has invested in infrastructure and technology. It is a fact that BSNL has reported subscriber growth after the launch of services by the latest entrant in the sector.
It has one handicap, however – the lack of 4G spectrum. Although it has started the service in some places like Kerala and Karnataka, it will be difficult for it to compete with other players without pan-Indian 4G spectrum. I think this handicap should be eliminated.
What is your outlook for the sector? What will be the three main focus areas for the ministry?
The telecom sector is somehow being perceived as a source of revenue generation. In order to change this, the department’s role has to be that of a growth facilitator. My focus is on sustainable growth of the sector, and making data and voice available at affordable prices in the remotest areas of the country. The third focus area is to make Digital India and Make in India a success.
By when will the NTP be announced?
Broadly speaking, we have prepared the framework for it. Very soon, we will put it up on the website for recommendations and suggestions. We aim to finalise it by June 2018.