“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” ― Charles Darwin
As we go through the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become abundantly clear that adaptability is the key to survival. The Telecom Sector, that has had to adapt to many wrenching changes over the past 25 years, found itself challenged with yet another challenge of global proportions! In the current situation of the pandemic, the industry found itself almost as ‘the last man standing’. As the country went into quarantine with restricted movement and new acronyms like WFH slipping into our vocabulary, the resilience and ubiquitous mobile networks came to be the lifeblood of the nation. When even such vaunted services like the Postal Service and Railways, which no one thought would come to a standstill in their lifetimes, came to a grinding halt, the mobile networks continue to function like silent sentinels of the nation’s economic and social health.
Battered by a ruinous price war, unsustainable debt, diminishing profitability, impoverishing government levies and taxes, company bankruptcies and the like, it was a miracle that the mobile networks would be able to withstand the increased traffic loads unleashed suddenly on the networks by the COVID pandemic. But stand and perform they did. Working closely with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), TRAI, MHA and other government agencies, the Telecom Service Operators (TSPs), ensured customers and citizens alike, that the mobile networks would not fail them in their hour of need.
TSPs along with their OEM partners and supporting vendors began preparations much before the event. Seeing the storm clouds emerge in other parts of the world, Operators began to put into practice their Business Continuity Plans (BCPs). This ensured necessary backup facilities, presence of key employees, redundancy, resilience, contingencies, etc., were all reviewed and put into operational mode immediately. When the intensity of the pandemic increased in India, work place sanitation and hygiene practices were put into effect and finally non-essential employees, accounting for over 80% of the work force, were sent to work from home. When the Honorable Prime Minister issued his first quarantine orders for the nation, the massive movement to WFH, placed unprecedented shifts and loads on the networks. Working with the DoT, Operators quickly pinpointed some of the issues and worked overnight with the DoT to request streaming service companies to reduce their streaming content from High Definition to Standard Definition. With their active cooperation, load factors were brought to manageable proportions. As days progressed, the nation saw a mass exodus of day laborers attempting to return home. To address the needs of these and others, TSPs immediately rolled out free services to ensure connectivity was not disrupted for this vulnerable part of the population.
This part of the story would remain incomplete if we did not acknowledge the yeoman service provided by our front line team members tasked with maintaining the uptime of the networks by repairing faults, fiber cuts, moving spare parts and delivering essential items like diesel for the generators. Many literally faced the ire and punishment from local law enforcement personnel during the early days of the quarantine for moving to complete their tasks. Here again, working closely with the DoT, local TERM cell representatives and local law enforcement, these early challenges were quickly resolved. Many of these team members walked miles, carrying heavy loads on their backs to deliver diesel and repair cell towers, because transportation was not available. These are the unsung heroes of our efforts.
While the networks were proving their mettle in the midst of the pandemic, the danger was that we would forget a major milestone in the history of the industry and of COAI. It was 25 years ago that India stepped out into a path of economic liberalization. The Telecom sector was the first to benefit from this visionary call of the government to open the sector to private participation. With the opening up of the sector, the immediate response was one of euphoria. Several companies were given licenses to provide mobile and landline services in the four Metro areas and 21 LSAs. There was hardly an international Operator of repute that was not represented in India. It was during these heady days that COAI was born to represent the interest of the private Operators with the DoT (then the monopoly service provider). Much has transpired in those 25 years. This space would be inadequate to transcribe the full or even a truncated history of these years. Suffice it to say that in the span of 25 years, the TSPs put India at the forefront of global subscriber growth, data consumption, network expansion, technology and process innovation and adoption, among other things. Today, the Telecom sector is serving a huge subscriber base of approx. 1.2 billion with a strong network capacity of over 5,96,000 mobile towers and more than 22 lakh BTSs in the country. All this was possible with an investment of over INR 11.25 lakhs crore by the telecom companies.
When the history of this period will have been written, it will showcase the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of its pioneers, the dogged tenacity of its Operators, the vision of its founders and investors, and the resilience of the industry to weather and deal with several body blows over the years. The support, guidance and enabling policies of the Government and the Regulator as they dealt with the challenges of dealing with this emerging industry are part of the success story of the sector.
With the help from State Governments, we managed to get the number of “faulty” BTSs down from approximately 800 from before the quarantine to nearly 290 to ensure smooth connectivity to the citizens. The standard operating procedure issued by the Home Ministry facilitating the movement of staff and logistics to maintain the network was a significant relief. Include this in the previous para indicating statistics.
STATUS ON POLICY AND REGULATORY ISSUES
Though significant steps have been taken by all the stakeholders to deal with the crisis situation, there are some more pending issues which need immediate attention for the telecom sector to sustain and stay strong in future.
While the telecom industry has been facing severe financial challenges, last year’s monumental judgement by the Hon’ble Supreme Court on Adjusted Gross Revenue has appeared as an additional liability of billions of dollars on the operators in addition to the tremendous debt that has accumulated as a result of extremely high prices of spectrum. The cumulative effect of all this including the high duties and levies imposed on the sector has placed the industry in a precarious financial position.
With onset of Covid-19, there has been a severe disruptive impact on the global supply chain, demand and supply elements and most importantly, on the cash flows of the companies due to the slowing economic activities. This downturn will have an impact on all payments including those of employees, interest, loan repayments and taxes.
In such a situation, the industry is in a dire need of immediate support from the Government, Given the fact that over 30% of all top line revenue goes back to the government by way of levies and taxes, the telecom industry had approached the Ministry of Finance with key requests, including providing soft loans against GST input credit to address the immediate liquidity crunch, reducing the SUC by 3% for all TSPs, reducing Licence Fee (USOF Contribution) from 8% to 3%. The industry had also urged to exempt the levy of GST on License Fees, SUC and Payment of Spectrum acquired in auctions. We have also sought exemption of service tax on amount of LF/SUC payable by telecom operators in compliance with Hon’ble Supreme Court AGR Order. We believe that these measures will not only help the industry emerge from its present financial distress but also place it in a situation to invest in needed network roll outs, coverage, capacity, innovation and new services that benefit the customer and the nation. It will help propel the nation to retain its place as a powerful leading global leader in networks and services as we prepare to take on the challenges of what emerges as new network, business, financial, logistics, economic and social configurations post COVID-19.
The NDCP 2018 (National Digital Communications Policy) is a forward-looking policy which deals with creating new digital reforms comprehensively. Implementation of the policy at a rapid pace will facilitate the ability to raise the proposed investment of USD 100 billion on favorable financial terms, which will not only make access to communication services easy and affordable but will also breathe in a new lease of life into the already debt ridden and financially distressed telecom sector. The proper execution of the policy will not only ensure the sector’s long-term sustainability but will also prepare the sector for widespread adaptations needed for welcoming futuristic technologies.
The Right of Way Rules, 2016, are certainly a progressive and forward-looking step to achieve the Digital India vision and allows for the uniform growth of telecom infrastructure in all States, as it provides for the process for grant of permissions for the installation of underground and over ground telecom infrastructure, Single Window Clearance via an online portal, the appointment of nodal officers and simplifying documentation. Till date, 16 States have aligned their Telecom Infrastructure policy with RoW Rules, 2016, that have streamlined hassle-free Right of Way processes. 12 states have also developed the online portal for easing RoW permissions. Some of the Telecom Infrastructure Policies like Odisha, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu Govt. Order, etc. are very progressive and help in an exponential growth of Telecom Infrastructure across the state. The industry along with the Government should now focus on this development across the entire country.
Fiberization is a must to address the digital divide and to reach all parts of the country to empower the citizens. Since all the cell towers in the country at present are not connected through fiber due to its paucity, there is an issue. Moreover, in last four years we have not had any increase in backhaul spectrum, hence, we are dealing with constrained factors and have to manage the quality of services based on existing capacity, for everybody’s good. Growth of fibre is the foremost priority for the ongoing exponential increase in data demand and improved quality of services. Fiberization will surely meet the present requirement of bandwidth and future technologies such as 5G, emerging technologies etc. Apart from this, early allocation of E & V bands to meet the backhaul requirements is also a pending request of the industry which is being considered by the Government.
Last year, 5G became a mainstream topic and rebooted the discussion of the value that telecom brings to society including innovation, security, and inclusion. World Radio Conference 2019 was held from October 28, 2019 to November 22, 2019 in Sharm-el-Shaikh, Egypt. The outcome of the WRC-19 has been very pragmatic, especially in the identification of mmwave bands (>24GHz) for IMT/5G. This identification and the resolutions have enabled efficient use of this spectrum between multiple services for national usage. The Indian Government and industry also actively participated in the same and are discussing 5G spectrum pricing, test cases, test beds and adoption of use cases suitable to India in the coming year. The stakeholders have submitted their test applications to DoT to begin the 5G testing, which due to the pandemic is on hold for some time, but is expected to begin shortly.
There was some misinformation regarding the emission levels of 5G technologies floating around for some time. However, the latest update from ICNIRP published in March 2020 re-iterated that the safety guidelines retain a high level of protection with limits set well below the thresholds for established hazards for all radio frequencies from 2G to 5G. ICNIRP noted that the exposures from 5G networks are well below these thresholds and stated – “The most important thing for people to remember is that 5G technologies will not be able to cause harm when these new guidelines are adhered to.” This is based on scientific reports prepared for the World Health Organisation (WHO), the European Commission, national expert groups and continuous monitoring of new research. The process has taken seven years and there was a public consultation in 2018 with more than 1,000 comments from over 120 organisations.
We must now expect that the coming years will usher in possible disruptions, hitherto unconceivable. Technology innovations, new revenue streams, new applications, new network configurations, new competitors, will all require significant investments to propel India to newer heights of economic growth and prosperity. With progress in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and intense interest in smart technologies, IoT and Robotics are also coming into the mainstream. Enterprise as a major revenue stream will also provide fresh opportunities for TSPs. This will bring many opportunities for operators in the form of AI based solutions for applications, services and underlying infrastructure. This may also be adopted to support the new digital infrastructure, improve customer service and reduce customer churn.
COAI and its Members and Associate Members will continue their focus on building the new age digital infrastructure to support the nation and providing value to their customers, advocating for a stable, long term, sustainable, policy and regulatory environment which will promote innovation and orderly growth for a fully connected and digitally empowered India delivered through a financially strong and viable industry. We also look forward to continuing our partnership with the Government and Regulator to achieve the above vision.
OTHER ACTIVITIES OF THE ASSOCIATION
Taking forward the momentum from last year, COAI organized the third edition of the country’s largest iconic Mobile, Internet, and Technology event in India and South Asia’s biggest technology event – India Mobile Congress 2019. The event took place under the active support, guidance, and leadership of Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad, Hon’ble Minister of Communications, Law and Justice and Electronics and Information Technology and actively supported by Shri Anshu Prakash, Secretary, DoT and Chairperson of the Digital Communication Commission as well as with the support of several other Government Ministries. With more than 250 plus speakers, discussions pivoting on 5G, Intelligent Edge, Immersive World, Privacy & Ethics, Autonomous things, Smart spaces, Augmented Analytics, Health & Future Logistics, the event drew luminaries from industry, Government – both domestic and international as well as many speakers of international repute. The event also witnessed technology showcases, use cases and also provided a platform for budding entrepreneurs to gain exposure and build connections with special focus on start-up pavilion.
COAI has participated and partnered with other entities in the co-organization and co-creation of various Seminars and Workshops on issues of common interest and benefit to its members and for generating subject matter awareness amongst consumers. COAI and its members also continued active participation in Organizations such as CII, FICCI, ASSOCHAM, NASSCOM, GSMA, TSDSI, TCOE, TSSC, amongst others, as well as activities of many telecom events in India.
To keep pace with the current situation of the Covd-19 pandemic and following the social distancing norms, COAI organized various webinars to discuss the changing world of telecom during these critical times.
The COAI Executive Council headed by Chairmen, Mr. Balesh Sharma, Mr.Ravinder Takkar, Vice Chairman, Mr. Ajai Puri and comprising senior representatives from all member operators, met several times over the last year to deliberate on a variety of issues impacting the telecom industry. They were ably assisted by proficient advice from the various Working Committees that have been set up in COAI.
I also want to express my deep appreciation for to all the Committees and Working Groups and their Chairmen and Vice Chairmen for their unstinted support and cooperation. We are grateful to you all for taking time out of your busy schedules to contribute towards various industry issues and helping the Association in representing them in a proficient and timely manner.
I would like to thank our Chairmen , Mr. Balesh Sharma, Mr. Ravinder Takkar and the Vice Chairman, Mr. Ajai Puri, for their personal involvement and support in all the activities and initiatives of the Association for the last year, especially in the face of the many challenges faced by their respective companies and the entire industry during the year. Both of them have given generously of their time and resources to provide personal support and guidance for the Association. We request their continued support and guidance in future as well.
I would especially like to record my deep appreciation for the sustained efforts and support of the COAI Secretariat team who have always been fully committed to the task before us and have always been ready to take up new challenges for the Association and execute them smoothly, efficiently and with excellence. We witnessed great team working during the Covid-19 lockdown. I deeply appreciate all of their efforts in contributing significantly to all the achievements of COAI.
RAJAN S. MATHEWS