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.
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.