The telecom industry has gone through many policy reforms in 2016 – from spectrum sharing to spectrum harmonisation and right of way
2016 has been an engaging year for the telecom industry. How do you look at the industry’s growth in terms of policy reform?
In the last one year, we have been focused on reforms because we believe that in this sector, which is driven by private sector investment and innovation, reforms are the key. Some of the new reforms are spectrum reforms like spectrum sharing, trading and harmonisation. Harmonisation is a huge reform to increase efficiency and reduce cost. It generated about Rs 27,000 crore for the government. Going beyond, with licensing reform we have abolished the wireless operating licence, which has cut down four lakh licences and reduced the timing for deployment by four months. Typically, when you put up a base transceiver station (BTS), they [telcos] have to seek approval each time they upgrade or share it. That part is abolished. It takes no time for approval now. They just have to inform us.
There have been reforms in ease of doing business too. The forward looking policies have led the industry towards profitability. FDI is 10 billion dollars in the economy. About 90 percent of the network is foreign-funded. This shows the confidence level in our policy reforms.
Then we formed the right of way (RoW) policy to make creation of telecom infrastructure time-bound. We also have reforms for deemed approvals. This means if a decision is not taken by a local authority in 60 days then the application would be deemed to be approved.
But the industry claims that they are still facing troubles dealing with local authorities in getting right of way permission.
Implementation is a problem in RoW. But a problem that is persistent for 25 years will take a few weeks or may be 25 weeks to sort out. We do monthly video conferences with states and local bodies to tell them essential features of the policy. The RoW rules are under the central act and they are bound to oblige. If someone is not, then telcos can get it enforced. There is also a provision of dispute settlement officers and states have to notify them. In the first stage, if a local body is taking much time or they are rejecting the application without proper reason, then telcos can take the matter to the officer, who is usually at the district headquarters.
I will be very surprised if after one year you raise the same issue of implementation. There is a system in place now and it has backing of law; so 95 percent people will soon fall in line.
TRAI has recommended verification of existing telecom subscribers through Aadhaar-based e-KYC. Is it a feasible idea?
The e-KYC is a huge consumer benefitting reform, in a sense that now you can use Aadhaar-based e-KYC and get a new connection in a few minutes. Earlier, it used to take all kinds of papers like proof of address, proof of identity, etc. But now you go to a retail shop, give your Aadhaar number, identify yourself with your biometrics and get a new connection in 20 minutes.
But we don’t want to create unnecessary pressure on the existing infrastructure by getting existing people verified through Aadhaar. It is not mandated.
We have over a billion telecom subscribers. But there are many subscribers who are running on fake identity. Verifying existing subscriber base with Aadhaar-based e-KYC help in filtering the fake ones and give the industry actual number of unique subscribers. Don’t you think so?
I don’t agree. The number of subscribers does not reflect unique subscribers because many people have multiple connections. Another case is that many surrender their number but their data is not deleted from the database of telcos. So each connection, unless it is based on forged documents, is well verified. If something unlawful happens then that is a separate matter.
What are your goals for this year?
The reforms we have done so far are of access spectrum. We are now looking for reforms in the backhaul spectrum, which has been the demand of the industry for a while. Also, next year, we are expecting to double the expenditure in the industry to Rs 14,000 crore.
Why there is a need to reform the backhaul spectrum?
There was always this issue of congestion. All the towers are connected to each other. My call goes to a tower. From there the signal goes to mobile switching centre (MSC) or base station controller (BSC) to find out whether I am a prepaid customer or if I have balance to initiate the call. That signal flowing is on the backhaul fibre or spectrum. So now we are planning to give them more volume backhaul spectrum. So that when the data flow increases, there is no congestion in that part.
There is not enough optical fibre in place that is the problem. Where there is no optical fibre that is where backhaul spectrum is required.
In certain cases it will meet all call-related problems like calls not maturing. Calls are unable to connect because the network is busy. That part will decrease. And ultimately everything is related to call drop because if a call is not matured then it will drop.
The second thing we are looking to do is the rural broadband infrastructure, which is providing optical fibre to the villages.
Call drop issue has persisted for long now. Do you think the situation has improved?
Call drops have substantially improved if you look at the TRAI figures. In September 2015, out of 183 2G networks, 54 networks had call drops. In September 2016, only 23 networks had call drops. Only Aircel is among the frontline telcos which has call drop issue.
In 3G, there were 20 networks out of 97 which had call drops. Now it is down to 12. So there is some improvement in call drops. But more work is still to be done. Improvements have come because of the large chunk of spectrum that we gave last year in auction. We put 965 megahertz of spectrum in the hands of the operators, which is cumulatively more than the amount we have got in last four auctions. We have been monitoring the rollout of infrastructure as well. The industry has put two lakh BTS last year.
But erecting a tower in residential areas is a challenge. Many citizens believe that radiation from these cell towers is harmful.
We do a lot of inter-personal workshops to address this concern. We try to give out message that towers are safe. We will also come out with a portal named Tarang Sanchar by February-end, hopefully, which will give details about each BTS, such as its ownership and location. And if it is tested, then how much radiation is emits. If a citizen wants to get a BTS checked, he/she can pay Rs 4,000 and get it tested. The idea is to make it transparent.