Today, India is the world’s second largest telecom market, contributing richly to the country’s socio-economic development and playing a critical role in keeping the economy running digitally during the Covid-19 pandemic. In a recently organised industry event commemorating 25 years of mobile telephony in India, Anshu Prakash, Secretary (Telecom), Ministry of Communications, and Chairman, Digital Communications Commission, spoke about India’s telecom journey and the sector’s role in the country’s social, economic and digital growth. Edited excerpts…
In India’s two-and-a-half-decade-long journey of mobile telephony, the country has witnessed phenomenal growth, the adoption of new technologies, and the penetration and proliferation of mobile services across its entire length and breadth. Mobile telecommunications have become central to India’s development story.
I recall the mid-1990s, when mobile phones were heavier in weight, looked clumsy and were essentially used for voice communication. The per minute rates of calls were unaffordable, more so for roaming services. Both incoming as well as outgoing calls were charged.
Of course, that is history. We have come a long way and what we have achieved appears to be unimaginable. Mobile density in India has now reached over 85 per cent. Data usage per month per subscriber is over 10.5 GB, perhaps one of the highest in the world. And the cost of data is perhaps the lowest in the world at just about a quarter of $1. Further, with the fast adoption of 4G technology, we have witnessed a great leap in terms of better quality of service, high speed downloads and high quality of voice, data and video connectivity.
During these years, the telecom infrastructure industry has fared well. India has led the world with the introduction of the concept of tower sharing. Today, the number of towers in India is over 600,000 and is rapidly expanding.
Mobile phones have become both vital and central to our daily lives. The very use of phones has changed in the past 25 years. From just being an alternative to fixed line voice communication, mobile phones today are the backbone for delivery of e-governance, e-commerce and value-added services, and, most importantly, for empowerment of citizens.
We must recognise and applaud the stellar role played by the telecommunications sector in keeping India connected during the lockdown and the restrictions necessitated by the country’s fight against Covid-19. It was the telecommunication networks that enabled each one of us to remain in touch with our friends and relatives. In the absence of connectivity through flights, trains and road transport, it was telecom services that kept us all connected. Healthcare workers and doctors, law enforcement agencies, essential services, government authorities, etc., were able to deliver effectively due to the voice, data and video connectivity enabled by telecommunication networks. Despite the surge in data consumption, I am happy to note that Indian telecommunication networks did not fail us even once during this period.
While we have reason to be proud of the success of mobile telecommunications over the years, we must also realise that the sector is faced with several challenges. Telecommunications is a capital-intensive sector and requires continual investment in maintenance and renewal of networks as also for the adoption of new technologies. This, in turn, entails capital infusion. India also requires a larger network of wireline communication and wireline broadband infrastructure. Tower density has to be enhanced significantly. Fibre use per capita must increase, and more and more towers need to be fiberised. Fibre-to-the-home connections and internet leased line communication need to be proliferated across the country.
Rural areas, which have shown a huge appetite for data consumption, require better telecommunication connectivity. There should not be a digital divide between regions, between urban and rural areas, and between haves and have-nots.
While the telecom policy landscape has evolved over the years through the introduction of national telecom policies in 1994, 1999, 2012, and most recently in 2018, the National Digital Communications Policy released in 2018 is highly futuristic in its scope and nature. Concerted efforts by all industry stakeholders are a must to achieve the goals and objectives of this policy. We also need to prepare, invest and be ready for reaping the benefits of 5G technology, and the opportunities and applications it presents across all sectors, including health, education, agriculture, disaster management, industry and commerce. The enhancement of our capabilities and capacities in the core information and communications technology sector must be a key focus area. The government is focusing its attention on Atmanirbhar Bharat. It is our belief that efforts by all stakeholders in the telecommunications sector will place India on a higher growth trajectory and bring in major enhancements in the quality of life of all its citizens.