Aruna Sundararajan has the delicate task of steering the telecom industry into newer avenues such as 5G and digital governance at a time when companies are reeling under huge debt and financial stress. Sundararajan, who took charge as telecom secretary a few months back, however, feels that the stress is a "temporary phenomenon" and companies need to "collaborate much more" to gain in health. She does not rue fall in tariffs, and says affordability has led to the industry's growth. "We are seeing end of the days where voice will be the backbone of the industry," Sundararajan tells TOI. Excerpts :
Health of the telecom sector is not great, and there is a battle for survival. Some companies are shutting down, or are on the verge of closure...
The era of many players is over. Because of capital-intensive nature of the industry, world over the trend is towards consolidation and fewer players. Having said that, let's not forget that India is not only the second-largest market, it is also the most vibrant and fastest growing telecom market in the world. The room for growth is so huge that three-to-four players can comfortably survive in avery healthy state.
How do you see the current pain in the industry?
I see the current situation as a temporary phenomenon. I firmly believe that in the medium-to long-term, Indian telecom prospects are extremely healthy. Companies need to start differentiating their products and services. They really need to also collaborate much more. They are already sharing towers, and now fibre will have to be shared.
Do you see unnecessary infighting and bickering within the industry?
Let me put it differently. I think the industry needs to focus on the opportunities which are lying ahead. Clearly the days of regulatory arbitrage are over. Now, they are not only competing with themselves, there are other bigger gorillas in the room in terms of platforms... Are telcos going to be mere utilities, or they can become more than that and offer real value to customers. Let's look at cloud, data centers, artificial and virtual reality, big data analytics — all are converging.
They need to look at these opportunities and not only focus on plain voice. We are seeing voice as a backbone of the industry, we are seeing the end of it. Data will grow ten times more than voice, very easily.
India has one of the lowest voice and data tariffs. Are you comfortable with current levels?
I have to speak from the point of view of the consumer. I am delighted with the tariffs. It has really given an opportunity to 1.18 billion Indians to partake in the digital economy. Lower tariffs have been a big driver of growth.
Government's revenues from the telecom sector have come down. Do you want revenue maximization, or do you prefer affordability and growth? Does fall in revenues worry you?
Government has to create an enabling environment and a level-playing field for everybody to grow. Beyond that, I cannot get into the market. I cannot start taking sides in the market. If there are barriers which industry as a whole is facing, yes it is certainly our responsibility to tackle those. Beyond that, arbitrating between specific players, we cannot. That's not our role.
Do you think fluctuations in revenues is a function of the market?
Yes, there are some areas where the market prevails and there are some where the policy can drive. Clearly, this a function of market dynamics. A new player comes in with new disruptive technology.
There are security concerns as sensitive information is flowing on our networks...
Security is a huge issue. We are digitizing faster than anybody else and we have more at stake than anybody else... We need to ensure that all our networks are security-enhanced. On capability and manufacturing, innovation has to come from here. That is the only way in which we will be able to create the jobs we need. We cannot afford to be so dependent on any country — whether China or anybody else. – TOI