As India embarks on the path of digital empowerment, the telecom sector and its stakeholders will lay the foundation for this transformation. 4G, 5G and other new emerging technologies will play a pivotal role in making the Digital India vision a reality. Widespread Universal broadband access is essential to reduce the digital divide as it will facilitate the achievement of progressive government plans, support social development, assist in environmental protection and contribute to economic growth. At a recent conference, Anshu Prakash, secretary (telecom), Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Ministry of Communications, delivered a keynote address on India’s digital progress, the government’s focus areas and the likely impact of the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018. Excerpts…
Data has emerged as the backbone of the digital economy. In India, we are looking at a massive data opportunity. With a population of more than 1.2 billion people and a huge data appetite, we are witnessing galloping rates of data usage in the country. It is phenomenal the way data usage rates have surged. Of course, the pricing of data also has a lot to do with it.
Mobile density is high. Unique mobile density is also high. Data tariffs in India are perhaps the lowest in the world. We have an abundance of start-ups and innovators in the ecosystem, and the best brains in the world. Academia is actively involved in our digitalisation campaign, which encompasses a digital economy, 5G and Industry 4.0.
To ensure the effective deployment of broadband across the country, fiberisation is essential. We have developed an enabling policy framework in terms of the National Digital Communications Policy [NDCP], 2018, a document that has been prepared in consultation with the industry. It focuses on policy initiatives like the fibre first policy and the common duct policy, leveraging fibre assets of utilities and single-window clearances, among others, to give an impetus to the roll-out of broadband in the country.
Focus on 5G
5G is one of our key priorities. The government is fully cognisant of the array of opportunities that 5G offers and it is committed to bring the technology to India in sync with the rest of the world. That said, 4G will remain important for an extended period of time, and even in 2025, 5G will only be a small proportion of the broader technology mix.
Based on the recommendations of the High Level Forum for 5G constituted in 2018, a number of actionable points have emerged and the government is currently engaged in taking them to a logical conclusion. We are expecting technology trials soon where telecom service providers will be working together with telecom equipment manufacturers and network and technology vendors to showcase the potential of 5G through actual on-ground applications.
The issue of capex requirement for 5G investment is certainly an important and intricate one. The government and industry need to work out ways as to how these investments will be made.
Besides, it is important to address the challenges related to right of way (RoW), which is closely linked to the targets of the National Broadband Mission as well for the roll-out of 5G. Till RoW issues are sorted out, it will be very difficult to have a vast and extensive network of fibre for providing backhaul or for tower fiberisation for 5G penetration.
While 5G brings its own set of technological challenges, we do see it as a vehicle for social and economic transformation of the country.
Focus on fibre
Fiberisation of our networks remains poor. Fibre connectivity of towers is very limited. Fibre per capita is something to worry about. Undoubtedly, we need to deploy more optical fibre cable (OFC), but the key question is how fast it can be rolled out. Also, it is important to consider how the existing fibre can be best utilised in terms of operations and maintenance.
Wireless alone will not be enough, especially in the context of 5G. To tap the 5G potential, we need fiberisation at a very fast pace. I want to assure you that DoT is already working on it. The new telecom minister has identified the National Broadband Mission and the establishment of the National Fibre Authority as key priorities.
We have a fairly robust OFC manufacturing base in India, but fibre manufacturing itself needs a boost. We only have a few manufacturers at present and the demand that is going to emerge in the future presents an opportunity for many more. Clearly, our manufacturing base is low. We are still dependent on imports. We hardly have any intellectual property and standard essential patents registered in India. Our fabrication capabilities are negligible even though it is our brains that are designing these products somewhere else, be it in China or Silicon Valley.
Collaborative approach for resolving issues
I sincerely believe that all industry stakeholders together can significantly transform the lives of millions of people in the country. Clearly, the task is so enormous that neither industry nor the government can do it alone. For instance, state governments are key stakeholders in the OFC value chain and have a critical role in granting real-time RoW approvals, making the process economical. We will soon be calling a meeting with the state governments and industry representatives on the RoW issue.
We are working on a broadband-readiness index to measure the rank of each state. The aim is to inculcate a sense of competition among the states that will drive them to perform better, and also incentivise states with outstanding performance. Under the NDCP, 2018, we have listed several programmes for broadband enhancement – BharatNet, GramNet, NagarNet and JanWiFi – that are all dependent on OFC. We have also set a target to provide fixed line broadband access to 50 per cent of the households in the country.
Besides BharatNet, we have the Network for Spectrum project for the defence sector. Under the project, some part of the spectrum held by the defence forces is being given up in lieu of OFC networks. It is a big and unique project and is progressing rapidly. For the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, we have planned a submarine cable that should be ready by June 2020. The foundation stone for the project has been laid, and we are taking stock of progress regularly to ensure that timelines are adhered to. A similar project for Lakshadweep is also on the anvil.
Focus on innovation
We also hope that 5G technology will provide an impetus to the Indian start-up ecosystem, as well enhance the country’s contribution in terms of patented products and IPRs. This is one aspect that we are very keen on promoting and are thus encouraging involvement of Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Science to come out with innovative technologies and help the Indian industries, especially small entrepreneurs.
5G technology is being linked to Industry 4.0, artifical intelligence and robotics, all of which will transform business and employment opportunities. This will also help people residing in rural areas ride on the technology wave to increase their income and improve their living conditions.
The way forward
In the years to come, the digital economy will emerge as a key driver of GDP in the country. It is estimated that between 2020 and 2025, 5G and related aspects will contribute nearly $1 trillion to the economy. The rural-urban divide can only be bridged by expanding our digital network rapidly so that broadband access in rural areas is similar to that in urban areas.
Digitalisation can empower citizens further. Direct benefit transfer is already empowering them. To be able to access information through the internet without having to go to government offices is empowering citizens. The provision to pay utility bills online is also empowering citizens. The ease of living theme emphasised by the government can be facilitated and accelerated by digitalisation and 5G.
Going forward, we hope to continue to focus on socially relevant areas. Improvement in healthcare, better access to education, enhancement of banking infrastructure, secure networks and Industry 4.0 are all closely linked to the growth and future success of the telecom sector.
There is a growing need for all stakeholders to come together, collaborate and work towards achieving the objectives laid down under the NDCP, 2018.