How Utilities can Fuel Telecom Growth?
The Digital India campaign was launched by the Government of India in 2015 with an estimated expenditure of ₹1.13 Trillion and a vision of ensuring internet connectivity for all by 2022. The core idea behind the programme is to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. With such an ambitious plan and funds overlay, the project created a positive atmosphere among both the public and the industries.
Further the government curated National Digital Communication Policy (NDCP) in 2018 to strengthen India’s long-term competitiveness. The policy has a mission to connect and propel India with broadband connectivity of 50 Mbps for all, creation of additional 4 Mn jobs, and attracting FDIs (Foreign Direct Investment) of $100 Bn in the Digital Communication Sector. The policy also aims at enhancing the contribution of the Digital Communication Sector from ~6% of India’s GDP in 2017 to 8%.
Current Challenges in realizing the Digital India Dream
In the three years, since the launch of the Digital India campaign, the government has been pushing hard to meet the stated objectives. While India has the second highest set of active internet users at 511Mn, the penetration of internet is a mere 39%. Of the 511 Mn, 338 Mn users are from affluent urban areas, which is about 67% of the total users. This leaves a major portion of rural segment devoid of internet access.
The connected population is working with slow internet speed. India ranked 88th in the world in 2018 with 5.19 Mbps mean download speed, while the global average was at 9.1 Mbps. A large portion of that segment is not trained in digital space and lacks the understanding of using it effectively. Bharat Net is a government project to build nationwide network of optical fiber. The aim is to provide broadband connectivity to connect all 2.5 Lacs Gram Panchayats. However, the project needs to step up and work at a much greater speed. As of January 2018, over 3 Lacs km of fiber optic cable had been laid and only 1.16 Lacs Gram Panchayats have been connected. More so, maintaining and providing uptimes of the laid fiber is crucial to the success of the Bharat Net initiative.
For a digital and connected India, one of the prerequisites is an electrified India. However, it is only possible when the entire country is electrified at the household level. The Government of India launched the Saubhagya scheme in 2017 to achieve exactly that- 100% electrification of the country. India is all set to achieve 100% household electrification by end of this financial year (FY 2018-19), with 24.4 Mn families having received power connections out of the targeted 24.8 Mn under the ₹163.20 Billion Saubhagya scheme. Upon completion, the Saubhagya scheme has the potential to achieve multiple aims.
Apart from 100% electrification, the scheme will also achieve a sprawling network of substations, towers, poles and towers with Optical Ground Wire (OPGW) Fiber cable infrastructure. Such utility assets having networks which are omnipresent and highly reliable can be leveraged for Telecom Infrastructure to increase the connectivity, reach and penetration.
Frequent Challenges in the Telecom Sector
Poor infrastructure is a major bottleneck faced by the telecom sector. Most of India’s fiber network, which is underground, poses immense challenges such as frequent fiber cuts due to continuous road expansions, utility construction and maintenance. Also, the high terrestrial interventions, easy access to cables, frequent rodent menace result in unintentional cuts, and Right of Way (RoW) problems.
As per the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, in India the fiber cable density is just 100 meters per 100 people. This is too little as compared to China’s 1.3km per 100 people. If we talk about the fiber cable length, then India’s 1.2 Mn km of fiber is again much lower against China’s 18.18Mn km or other countries like US, Malaysia etc.
Additionally, the telecom companies are facing financial stress due to a debt of about ₹8000 Billion, and the rising fuel prices resulting in higher Diesel Generators operating expenses. Diesel has an adverse environmental impact and the cost accounts for about 7-8% of the mobile carriers’ revenues.
Power Utilities – A game changer in the Telecom Industry
A convergence of power utilities and telecom companies is an apt choice to build a digital future for India. The usage of power utility networks by telecom and other communication service providers will achieve a dual aim: one, of increased and reliable connectivity across the country, and two, of reducing their financial burden by mitigating investment on infrastructure.
The telecom companies can make use of the OPGW infrastructure laid on the top of high voltage transmission lines. With a highly reliable and efficient communication backbone and unparalleled coverage with 1.2 Mn transmission towers as against to 0.5 Mn telecom towers. This can ensure next generation last mile connectivity till the deepest corner of the rural India. In addition, with the omnipresent coverage of electricity distribution network, any nook and corner can be covered either wirelessly or through wireline broadband network to serve the ever-growing data connectivity needs.
Partnering with utilities can offer a far better and secured network to Telcos, as compared to the conventional telecom network. The secured substations, continuous power supply, OPGW fiber network running on top of Extra High Voltage lines and towers which are about 15m – 55m tall, lead to uninterrupted, sabotage free and secured network. This increased connectivity and reach, coupled with secured substation colocation facilities, reduced investment. Reliable network and enhanced security will help telecom companies provide good quality internet to all. Increasing demands can be met in an effective manner without stressing on infrastructure or compromising on quality. Telecom industry can achieve a huge benefit on the time and investment front by partnering with power utilities.
Digital India and its impact on the economy
A great network of utilities and internet access can do wonders as we have seen in the case of many developed and developing countries. In India, villages will enjoy a broadband network through which they can avail not only government schemes, but also a huge expanse of knowledge that will boost their livelihood. Farmers will be able to access information about making the best use of resources while simultaneously selling their produce online. A sprawling web of rural industries can efficiently use internet and access markets beyond the bounds of geography. Digitalized rural economy will act as a springboard to make a bigger contribution in country’s GDP for economic growth.
While Digital India is a necessity for India’s growth, it cannot be achieved without exceptional work with power-based utilities and schemes like Saubhagya. India will benefit from an approach that uses Saubhagya as a propeller in order to ensure a digital and connected future.
N. K. Panda - Business Head Convergence, Sterlite Power