Indian Telecom Scenario
1. Telephone Subscriptions
a. The telecom sector is the backbone for achieving various pillars of Digital India programme. The significant growth in this sector is a result of key reforms and initiatives undertaken by the Government.
b. As on 30th October, 2020 the total telephone connections rose to 1171.72 million out of which 1151.73 million are mobile connections.
c. The tele-density has reached 86.37%, while the rural tele-density is at 58.85%.
2. Internet and Broadband penetration
a. The number of Internet subscribers stood at 776.45 million at the end of September 2020.
b. Total broadband connections have reached 726.32 million in September 2020.
c. This has accelerated the growth in internet traffic, with wireless data usage being 75.21 Exabytes during the period of January to September 2020.
d. The cost of data has also reduced substantially to Rs. 10.55 per GB, enabling affordable internet access for millions of citizens.
Reforms in the Telecom sector
• While India today has one of the lowest data usage charges in the world and data usage per mobile subscriber has also galloped, the Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) has witnessed a fall.
• From more than 10 major Telecom Service Providers (TSPs), the sector now has 3 major private TSPS in addition to two PSUs, BSNL and MTNL.
• Following steps have been taken by the Government to boost the sector
1. Increase in time period for payment of spectrum acquired in auctions
a. Due to churning and consolidation in the telecom sector, number of operators in the sector got reduced leading to financial stress on few remaining players.
b. Considering the financial stress in the Telecom Sector the Government, in March 2018, permitted to restructure the payment of annual spectrum charges from existing 10 annual instalments to sixteen instalments resulting in reduced annual cash outflow for the TSPS.
2. 1-2 years' moratorium for payment of spectrum acquired in auctions
a. Further to give the desired fillip to the sector, Government gave an option to the TSPS to defer payment of the spectrum auction instalments due for the years 2020-21 & 2021-22, either for one or both years.
b. The TSPS have chosen deferment of the annual instalments.
c. The amounts which will not accrue to the Government in this period of moratorium have been spread equally in the remaining instalments to be paid by TSPs, while preserving the Net Present Value (NPV) of the payable amount.
3. Revival of BSNL and MTNL
a. The comprehensive revival plan consists of several measures including reduction of staff cost through Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS), allotment of spectrum for 4G services, monetization of land/building, tower and Fiber assets of BSNL/MTNL, debt restructuring through sovereign guarantee bond and in-principle approval of merger of BSNL and MTNL.
b. Total 92,956 employees of both PSUs (BSNL — 78569 and MTNL— 14387) who opted for VRS have retired on 31.01.2020.
c. The salary expenditure in BSNL and MTNL has reduced by around 50% (approx. RS. 600 crores per month) and 75% (approx., Rs. 140 crores per month) respectively.
d. EBITDA (Earnings before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortisation) have become positive in first half of FY 2020-21 in both BSNL and MTNL.
e. The process for spectrum allocation for 4G services to BSNL on Pan-India basis including Delhi and Mumbai has been initiated and funds have been provisioned in FY 2020-21.
f. Sovereign guarantee of Rs. 15,000 crores have been extended to BSNL/MTNL BSNL and MTNL have raised the funds from the market to restructure existing high cost debt.
Projects and Initiatives
1. Service delivery in villages through BharatNet
a. For achieving the goal of Digital India programme, the Government is implementing the flagship BharatNet project in a phased manner to provide broadband connectivity to all the Gram Panchayats (approx. 2.5 lakh GPs) in the country.
b. Under BharatNet project around 1.50 lakh Gram Panchayats (GPs) have already been connected with high speed broadband connectivity which will help in launching various services in the rural areas.
c. As on 28.12.2020, Wi-Fi hotspots have been installed in GPs and about 4.8 Lakh Fiber to The Home (FTTH) broadband connections have been provided.
d. In addition to Wi-Fi hotspots, the number of GPs taken on SWAN (State Wide Area Network) stands at 5330.
e. The scope of BharatNet has now been enhanced to connect all 6 Lakh inhabited villages in the country as per the directive of Hon'ble Prime Minister as part of address to the Nation on 15th August 2020.
2. Submarine OFC Connectivity between Chennai and Andaman & Nicobar Islands
a. The submarine Optical Fiber Cable (OFC) connecting Andaman & Nicobar Islands to Chennai was launched on 10th August 2020.
b. The connectivity would now enable endless opportunities in the islands.
c. Work for laying of 2300 KMs of submarine cable was completed before the target date whilst the task of laying the cables under the sea, surveying in the deep sea, maintaining the quality of the cable and laying of the cable with specialised vessels was not easy.
d. The project also had to overcome challenges such as high waves, storms and monsoons and the tough times owing to Corona Pandemic.
3. Submarine OFC Connectivity between Kochi and Lakshadweep
a. The Project envisages provision of a direct communication link through a dedicated submarine Optical Fibre Cable (OFC) between Kochi and 11 Islands of Lakshadweep viz. Kavaratti, Kalpeni, Agati, Amini, Androth, Minicoy, Bangaram, Bitra, Chetlat, Kiltan & Kadmat.
b. The estimated cost of implementation is about Rs. 1072 crore including operational expenses for 5 years.
c. Presently only medium of providing telecom connectivity to Lakshadweep is through satellites, but the bandwidth available is limited to 1 Gbps. Lack of bandwidth is a major constraint in providing data services, which is a pre-requisite for providing e-governance, e-education, e-banking etc. for inclusive growth of society.
d. The present approval for Provision of Submarine Optical Fibre Cable Connectivity will vastly improve telecommunication facility in the Lakshadweep Islands by providing large bandwidth.
4. Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan for North Eastern Region (NER)
a. In order to provide connectivity to uncovered areas of North Eastern Region (NER), the Department is executing a project to install of 2004 towers to cover 2128 villages and National Highways.
b. More than 1,300 towers are now radiating.
c. The Union Cabinet has also given its approval for provision of a Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) Scheme for providing mobile connectivity in around 6000 villages of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and other parts of North Eastern States to bring these regions to the mainstream.
5. For providing connectivity to uncovered villages of J&K, Ladakh and other priority areas, the Government is implementing a scheme to provide mobile services on technology neutral outcome based approach in 354 villages.
6. A plan has been drawn up for provisioning of 4G based Mobile service in 502 uncovered villages of Aspirational Districts of four states namely, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh & Rajasthan at an estimated cost of Rs.686.71 crore.
Management of COVID-19
1. COVID Quarantine Alert System (CQAS)
a. For effective management of Covid19 pandemic Covid-19 Quarantine Alert System (CQAS) was developed for in-house monitoring and management of the quarantine geo-fence.
b. Auto Emails / messages (SMS)are sent to State Government agencies, if any identified Corona +ve or quarantined person, moves away from his quarantined mobile tower area.
c. Auto Emails / messages (SMS)are sent to State Government agencies, if any identified Corona +ve or quarantined person, moves away from his quarantined mobile tower area.
d. It has handled approx. 27 lakh targets (identified Covid +ve or quarantined person) and generated more than 18.30 crore quarantine breach alerts.
2. Covid-19 Savdhaan System: More than 300 crore SMS alerts were sent to citizens in 10 vernacular languages in 26 States/UTs for Covid-19 awareness.
1. Prime Minister's Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI)
a. The Union Cabinet on 9th December, 2020 has approved setting up of Public Wi-Fi Networks by Public Data Office Aggregators (PDOAs) to provide public Wi-Fi service through Public Data Offices (PDOs) spread across length and breadth of the country.
b. This framework takes forward the goal of National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 (NDCP) of creating a robust digital communications infrastructure across India.
c. This will encourage technology entrepreneurs to develop and deploy Wi-Fi technology solutions triggering Make in India.
d. This new eco system will also enable new business models for shopkeepers as potential PDOs to provide high speed broadband services.
e. No License Fee for providing broadband internet services using public Wi-Fi Hotspots will be charged.
f. This step will massively encourage internet proliferation and penetration across the length and breadth of the country which in turn will enhance incomes, employment, quality of life, ease of doing business etc.
2. Simplifying Regulations / and Reducing Compliance Burden
a. Unnecessary regulation and excessive compliance burden were becoming a major bottleneck for the BPO industry, which was otherwise poised for phenomenal growth.
b. Earlier, the guidelines governing OSPs had provision for Work-FromHome (WFH) for their employees/ agents. However, due to the stringent conditions in the guidelines, WFH facility was not being utilized optimally.
c. There was a pressing demand from OSPs seeking relaxation in the Terms and Conditions with respect to the 'Work from Home' in the wake of COVID-19.
d. Under the new guidelines, the registration requirement for OSPs has been done away with altogether and the BPO industry engaged in data related work have been taken out of the ambit of OSP regulations.
e. In addition, requirements such as deposit of bank guarantees, requirement for static IPs, frequent reporting obligations, publication of network diagram, penal provisions etc. have also been removed.
f. Similarly, several other requirements, which prevented companies from adopting 'Work from Home' and 'Work from Anywhere' policies, have also been removed.
g. Additional dispensations to enhance flexibility for the Industry have been allowed.
3. Development of Online License Management System of DOT
a. A web-based portal, "SARAL SANCHAR" (Simplified Application for Registration and Licenses) for issuing of various types of Licenses and Registration Certificates for OSPs (Other Service Providers) has been developed by the Department of Telecommunications.
b. Apart from licensing applications other applications are being processed on this portal such as Standing Advisory Committee for Frequency Allocation (SACFA) clearance has been made online and end-to-end paperless.
c. More than 25,000 sites have been cleared since the launch within a period of around 3 months. This is bringing in transparency and time efficiency.
d. In line with the priorities set by the Government in terms of ease of doing business and simplification in the regulatory compliance process, a progressive change in the regulatory policy provision in respect of Equipment Type Approval (ETA) has taken place.
e. ETA and import licenses for certain categories of consumer products having wireless modules operating in the de-licensed band are now permitted through self-declaration by the applicant through this portal.
f. Till date around 11000 ETAS have been given since the launch of the facility in April 2019.
4. 5G Technology
a. The emerging 5G technology has the potential for major societal transformation in India by enabling massive expansion of digital products and services across all sectors.
b. In order to launch 5G services in India, DOT has setup indigenous 5G testbed, a consortium project led by IIT Madras and other leading institutions.
c. A 5G hackathon was also organized for development of India specific use cases.
d. First 5G use case lab has been setup at Institute for Development and Research in Banking Technology (IDRBT), Hyderabad in financial sector.
(The author is a trainer for Civil Services aspirants. The views expressed here are personal.)