One of the hindrances to the smooth roll-out of telecom networks is the difficulties in getting right-of-way (RoW) clearances. Different states and different municipalities apply different norms and rules for RoW, and process applications at varying speeds. This contributes to the uneven nature of telecom infrastructure installation across India.
RoW clearances are a complex process since a single RoW can require permissions at different levels, from different agencies. Different states and local bodies also charge different fees apart from having varying levels of efficiency and speed and different criteria for processing such applications.
Central policy in this regard can set benchmarks. But states and municipalities have to ratify the central policy. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) set the prevailing RoW Rules in 2016 and amended them in 2017. On April 15, 2022, it released a new draft set of guidelines that take into account the needs of 5G networks. Until then, only 18 states had accepted the RoW Rules, 2016.
The centre has also tried to ease the RoW process by creating a single window for applications with the launch of the GatiShakti Sanchar portal where all applications for RoW made anywhere can be processed and the status of such applications can be ascertained at a glance. This should lead to more consistency, transparency and speed up RoW clearances.
The centralised portal enables telecom service providers, infrastructure providers, internet service providers and others to apply for RoW approval for laying optical fibre cable (OFC) and erecting telecom infrastructure (such as towers). Applications to various agencies of the states/union territories (UTs), central ministries and local bodies can be submitted via this single window. The portal is integrated with the RoW portals of various central ministries and with state RoW portals.
Under the draft guidelines, it will be mandatory for all states, UTs and other stakeholders to each create a single online portal for all authorities under their control. These portals will all be integrated with the central RoW portal (GatiShakti) to provide a single unified interface for applicants. State and local bodies and agencies that do not already have their own portals can directly use the GatiShakti portal to facilitate RoW processing.
As per the central RoW dashboard data, 36 states and UTs have been onboarded to the portal. DoT has received 70,492 RoW applications, of which 36,167 applications have been approved, 22,022 have been rejected, 7,650 are pending and 4,180 applications have been reverted.
The draft guidelines aim to bring consistency in RoW-related procedures across states and spur infrastructure deployment ahead of the 5G roll-out. In line with this, the guidelines offer a methodology for the calculation of RoW areas, fixing of poles for the deployment of small cells, possible usage of street furniture for the deployment of small cells, mandatory in-building solutions to be adopted for new housing complexes, the provision of an RoW portal and the concept of deemed approval, among other things. For example, a request will be deemed to have been approved if it has not been approved or rejected within 60 days of the date of request.
These policy measures and the streamlining of administrative processes for RoW approval should lead to faster OFC roll-out and increased tower density as well as better fibre connectivity to towers to improve the quality of telecom services. While setting up mobile towers is a relatively easy task, OFC connectivity to these involves running cables, either underground or overground. The new 5G networks will also need small cell provisions if the full potential of 5G is to be realised.
An example of how confusion regarding the RoW charges for towers and overground and underground OFC can be clarified can be drawn from the Gujarat government. The state government accepted the RoW Rules, 2016 in 2022. It has now fixed a one-time fee of Rs 10,000 per application to meet the administrative expenses for telecom tower deployment. Telecom companies will be charged Rs 1,000 per km for rolling out OFC, whether underground or overground. A system of time-bound clearance with deemed approval within 60 days will be followed. This will speed up roll-outs.
Industry bodies such as the Digital Infrastructure Providers Association and the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) have hailed the new portal as a potential game changer. Lt General Dr S.P. Kochhar, director general, COAI, says, “The portal will enable faster roll-out of the 5G network in India by drastically reducing the time taken by telecom service providers and infrastructure providers to obtain clearances for installing telecom towers and laying OFC. The portal is expected to enable time-bound RoW approvals by local municipalities, etc. across the nation. The GatiShakti Sanchar portal is an important step towards making India digitally advanced, encompassing programmes such as the Smart Cities Mission and achieving the goal of Broadband for All.”
Speed in obtaining clearances is especially important with 5G auctions scheduled for the immediate future. If RoW clearances are held up, it would slow down 5G roll-outs. To this end, DoT secretary has asked all DoT field units to conduct monthly meetings with service providers to review the application approval process and pendency. He has directed them to further take up the issues with the state and municipal authorities. DoT has directed state secretaries and department heads of state governments to ensure quick disposal of RoW applications in their respective states. State broadband committees have also been asked to align state policies with the central RoW Rules, 2016.
Apart from speed, the flattening of charges across states and urban local bodies would be beneficial to telecom service providers. For example, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation used to levy Rs 100,000 per km as access charges for laying OFC. This has now been reduced to Rs 1,000 per km, and no other tax, fee or cess is payable. These substantial reductions will considerably reduce the cost of roll-outs. Other states are aligning their charges similarly.
Uniformity in RoW rules and fast clearance are a must for the smooth roll-out of 5G. The draft guidelines and the integrated GatiShakti portal should considerably speed up the roll-out of 5G networks and reduce costs as well.