Tejinder Kalra, Chief Operating Officer, Indus Towers,
Within a short span of a couple of decades, the Indian mobile telecom industry has witnessed tremendous growth and has been a key contributor to India's economic development. The mobile telecom revolution has transformed the lifestyles of people and has made it possible for the common-man to own a mobile phone to connect to his loved ones even in the remotest part of the country. Not only has mobile phone penetration leapfrogged the number of landline subscribers, it has also helped in making the internet pervasive across the country. However, while all of us talk about 2G/3G/4G mobile services and the need for all pervasive mobile network coverage that has unleashed the great telecom revolution, what is hardly spoken about is the significant role played by the passive telecom infrastructure of mobile telecom towers which is the very backbone and bedrock of rolling out mobile telephony services in any geographical location. These towers placed atop a building in cities, amidst farmlands in rural areas, or on top of a hill in mountainous areas, provide the backbone support to all mobile telecom operators in enabling mobile connectivity across the country. Over the years, the passive telecom infrastructure industry has also evolved to provide very high uptimes which has enabled always-on, always-available mobile services to the end consumers and enhanced the voice and data experience with the networks.
India has very limited fixed-line broadband infrastructure and the next generation 4G/LTE mobile broadband technology being rolled out by all the telecom operators will help to bridge that gap. This will further boost government's Digital India initiative of transforming India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. The massive speed and scale at which the 4G roll-out has happened in India is second to none in the world. The telecom operators and telecom tower industry have left no stone unturned to facilitate smooth rollout of 4G services in the country and in helping to bring affordable mobile broadband services to the masses. This massive rollout of 4G services is helping in building up high-speed digital highways throughout the length and breadth of the country which will help to transform India into a digital economy.
Theoretically, 4G is capable of delivering speeds in excess of 100 Mbps. However, in the real-life loaded network scenario, a realistic data speed of 10–20 Mbps can be attained. Going by the broadband definition given by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), broadband should have a minimum speed of 512 Kbps. By that standard, 4G is miles ahead of minimum broadband speed recommendations in India. With government's ambitious National Optical Fiber Network (NOFN) launched in 2011 to provide broadband connectivity to over two lakh gram panchayats of India stymied with various hurdles, 4G can emerge as the new enabler for the Digital India push that aims to plug the rural connectivity gap. Given that mobile telecom connectivity has already reached into remote areas of the country, 4G can be leveraged as a better and faster channel to materialize the benefits of Digital India initiatives envisioned by the Prime Minister.
The government can materialize its e-governance and Digital India initiatives through the reach of mobile internet, be it over 4G, 3G, or 2G EDGE-based networks. There is a plethora of avenues for government services ranging from healthcare to financial inclusions that can be envisaged and realized through 4G. Imagine a farmer getting real-time weather forecast and tips to improve his harvest or a healthcare worker in a rural area getting guidance from a medical expert over a video-call to tend to a critical patient, there are innumerable such use cases. At the same time, India with its large population is a huge market and with the availability of cost-effective 4G smartphones and mobile network coverage extending to the remotest part of the country there is a huge potential for telecom operators to drive 4G services and tap the market for their business growth.
With the increasing smartphone penetration and competitive market forces already driving down data tariffs, data usage is already exploding and this is challenging the telecom operators to address the increasing data traffic demand over the mobile networks. The increasing use of social media applications, video and music streaming, online games etc. have all contributed to the voluminous data growth which is stretching the existing cellular networks beyond their limits. The telecom operators will have to adopt data traffic off-loading solutions especially in dense urban and high-usage hot-spots. This approach requires them to balance the data traffic between the licensed spectrum and unlicensed high-bandwidth wireless technologies, for example WiFi. This will result in less traffic over the cellular network while data will be off-loaded to the WiFi network. For achieving this, the telecom operators will have to create WiFi hotspots in dense urban areas and high usage zones to off-load data traffic and decongest the mobile networks. Another method to cater to the exploding data requirement is by setting up another layer of micro cell sites along with the macro sites and create a heterogeneous network (HetNet). This will not only help to create additional capacity in the network but also provide seamless coverage for a better user experience. According to a Deloitte report, by 2020 nearly 44% of mobile traffic will be off-loaded to WiFi or micro-cell sites.
While the telecom operators are putting in all their efforts and pumping in huge amounts of CapEx to extend the network coverage to interior regions of India and cater to rural segments, their efforts have been marred with untoward challenges such as propaganda-driven EMF myths. Despite India having the world's most stringent radiation emission norms for telecom towers, there have been propaganda-driven protests against telecom providers saying EMF radiations from telecom towers cause cancer. The EMF radiations from telecom towers are nonionizing (unlike the X-rays) and there is no scientific evidence to prove any harmful effects of these radiations. However, these kind of EMF myths have created unwarranted fears in the minds of people and have had wide implications on the telecom tower industry which was has been barred from setting up towers in several urban areas. This has created network coverage gaps and is one of the reasons for call-drops and poor network experience. The telecom industry continues to educate the people through public and government engagements to allay such EMF-related myths and fears.
With the 4G/LTE-based digital highway, the rural sector too can participate in the inclusive economic growth of India. This nation-wide broadband internet connectivity is instrumental in improving businesses, governance, and security and would also be the key enabler for emergency response services. The telecom operators and the tower industry will have to work together to provide a robust 4G network which will enable the digital highway on which India's economic growth will be driven at an unprecedented speed.