A Brisk Pace: Strong growth in India’s digital curve

The Indian telecom sector has been experiencing immense growth over the past few years. On the network roll-out front, the co­untry has been witnessing one of the fastest roll-outs of 5G network in the world. The adoption of cutting-edge technologies such as internet of things, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) is also at an all-time high. These developments have been made possible by concerted efforts on the part of the government to revolutionise the sector, and by industry stakeholders to adopt modern and innovative solutions to stay ahead of the digital curve.

Expanding 5G coverage

Currently, India is experiencing swift 5G roll-outs. Since October 2022, when 5G services were commercially launched in the country, 100,000 5G base stations have been installed within five months, 200,000 within eight months and 300,000 within 10 months. As of August 2023, Jio and Airtel have installed 314,000 5G base stations, making India’s 5G service roll-out among the fastest in the world.

Reliance Jio’s 5G service is already present in over 96 per cent of the census towns in India. The telco has over 50 million 5G customers at present. Airtel, too, has recently completed the minimum roll-out obligation (MRO) of introducing 5G services in the 26 GHz spectrum in all 22 telecom circles of India, in accordance with the norms set by the Department of Telecom­munications (DoT). The telco has also been expanding 5G coverage in the country rapidly.

Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) are yet to begin commercial 5G roll-outs. However, Vi has tested 5G services across both 25 GHz millimetre wave and 3.3 GHz mid-bands at Ghole Road, Pune, in a bid to meet the MRO mandated by DoT. Meanwhile, BSNL has tas­ked a consortium led by Tata Consultancy Ser­vices (TCS) to enable its pan-India 4G/5G network. Recently, Tejas Networks Limited receiv­ed a mobilisation advance of Rs 7.5 billion from TCS for the delivery of radio access network equipment for BSNL’s 4G/5G network, which spans 100,000 locations.

As of August 2023, Jio and Airtel have installed 314,000 5G base stations, making India’s 5G service roll-out among the fastest in the world.

Beginning of the 6G era

It has not even been a year since the formal launch of 5G services, but India has already committed resources to 6G. The country aims to play a critical role in developing standards and generating intellectual property for 6G, which will probably not be rolled out before 2030. In a key move, DoT has announced the formation of the Bharat 6G Alliance, a collaborative platform consisting of public and private companies, academics, research institutions and standards development organisations. The alliance will forge coalitions and synergies with other 6G global alliances, fostering international collaboration and knowledge exchange.

The Alliance aims to bring together Indian start-ups, companies and the manufacturing eco­system to establish consortiums that can drive the design, development and deployment of 6G technologies in India. By accelerating standards-related patent creation within the country and actively contributing to international standardisation organisations such as 3GPP and the In­te­rnational Telecommunication Uni­on, it seeks to position India at the forefront of 6G innovation.

The government has also signed two ag­reements for a grant of approximately Rs 2.41 billion for projects under the Telecom Te­ch­nology Development Fund. Further, under the Digital Communication Innovation Square sc­he­me, a grant of Rs 480 million has been announced for 66 start-ups and micro, small and medium enterprises.

As of July 2023, the country has over 200 patents in the field of 6G technology. To further enhance technology innovation, DoT has set up a Technology Innovation Group with members from across the supply chain to develop the vision, mission and goals for 6G and its delivery in India.

India is also scaling up its collaborations with other countries in the field of 6G. For ins­tance, India and France have committed to further deepening their cooperation in areas such as digital public infrastructure, cybersecurity, start-ups, AI, supercomputing, 5G/6G and digital skills development. In September 2023, Bh­a­rat 6G Alliance and Next G Alliance, an initiative of the US-based Alliance for Tele­commu­ni­cations Industry Solutions, signed a memorandum of understanding to explore co­llaboration opportunities in 6G wireless technologies in India and other parts of the world.

India’s internet economy is projected to grow from $175 billion in 2022 to $1 trillion by 2030, accounting for 12-13 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Hastening digital infrastructure deployment

The telecom sector has also been actively pursuing digital infrastructure expansion for telec­om towers, optical fibre cable (OFC), and next-ge­neration digital infrastructure such as data centres, small cell solutions, in-building solutio­ns and Wi-Fi services. Government pro­g­ram­m­es such as BharatNet and PM-WANI ha­ve been pl­a­y­­ing a crucial role in bridging In­dia’s digital divide.

In fact, the roll-out of telecom infrastructure such as telecom towers, small cells and OFC has seen significant growth at twice the speed over the past three years. This can be attributed to the exponential growth in mo­bi­le broadband that is fuelling the digital economy. According to the Digital Infrastruc­tu­re Pro­­viders Association, in 2020, only 16 out of 36 sta­t­es/union territories (UTs) were aligned with the Right of Way rules released in Nov­ember 2016. Currently, 35 states/UTs are ali­g­ned with the rules. This is expected to pro­mo­te the creation of a robust digital in­frastr­ucture in the country. Further, in July 2020, India had 593,000 telecom towers, whi­­ch has now inc­re­a­sed to 768,000 telecom towers, as of Au­gust 2023. Meanwhile, the leng­th of optical fibre laid in 2021 was 2,661,968 km, which has increased to 3,726,577 km in 2023.

Global data centre hub

Apart from digital infrastructure expansion, India is also witnessing a surge in data centre establishment, with global conglomerates lining up to grab a share of this ever-growing market. Bet­ween 2021 and 2022, the country witne­ss­ed a whopping 31 per cent growth in total supply, with total operational capacity rising from 551 MW in 2021 to 722 MW by end of 2022. Edge data centres have also emerged as an im­portant subsegment of the industry.

Satcom: the next big thing

Satellite communication (satcom) is another promising area that is experiencing increased traction in the country. In particular, satcom can play a pivotal role in connecting India’s re­mo­te and unconnected regions, as it offers various advantages over terrestrial technologies. Sat­com is also being seen as one of the fundamental enablers of the proliferation of 5G services worldwide, and can thus play a role in providing 5G connectivity in remote and rural areas.

To this end, the Union Cabinet’s approval of the Indian Space Policy, 2023, granted in April 2023, is a step in the right direction. The po­licy aims to pave the way for private entities to tap the burgeoning space sector, which will scale up growth in satcom-based services.

Opportunities galore

Net, net, the telecom sector has been playing a crucial role in establishing a solid bedrock for bu­ilding India’s digital economy. According to a joint report released by Google, Temasek, and Bain & Company, India’s internet economy is pr­o­­jected to grow from $175 billion in 2022 to $1 trillion by 2030, accounting for 12-13 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. In this re­ga­rd, various reforms undertaken by the go­ve­r­nment, including structural and procedural re­for­ms and relief measures, and sta­ke­holders’ consistent efforts to scale up digital coverage ha­ve led to the telecom sector’s tra­ns­formation into a sunrise sector. As 5G continues to penetrate de­eper into the country’s hi­n­terla­nd, the op­por­tunities for stakeholders will grow significantly.