India’s Airtel wants new regulatory body for speedy fiber rollout

fibre rollout India
Fibre-optic cable drum. Photo by Rostovdriver |

India’s Bharti Airtel has proposed setting up an “Optic Fiber Regulatory Authority” for faster, transparent, and economic rollout of fiber in the country and to ensure optimum utilization by effective sharing among service providers.

The Sunil Mittal-led telco’s suggestion came in response to a consultation paper on broadband speeds and connectivity by the telecom regulator, TRAI.

Airtel said that poor availability of broadband in India could be largely attributed to an unviable business model since the deployment of telecom infrastructure requires significant investments.

“Immediate measures are required to ensure an increase in the industry’s revenue and reduce their costs. An increase in revenue and a decrease in costs will go a long way in making a viable business case and an inflow of investments in the sector,” the telco said.

Responding to a consultation paper, Airtel said that the proposed authority should be responsible to bridge differences between telecom service providers and state authorities, and local bodies for serving the objective of laying of underground cable infrastructure, expediently and efficiently. 

The optic fiber authority, Airtel said, can also facilitate permissions to build fiber across jurisdictional domains of roads (state /national highways), railways, cities and towns (municipalities), forest and defence areas, with clearly defined exceptions. 

The telco also gave various suggestions that the proposed authority can look after to address broader Right of Way (RoW) challenges.

The Indian government introduced the RoW Act in 2016, which was aimed at expediting the building of telecom infrastructure. Airtel said that implementation of the policy across states has not been on the expected lines and different state governments continue to operate with their rules for granting RoW permissions with very high timeframes and disproportionately higher charges than the prescribed rates in policy.

“One of the reasons for the slow implementation of the RoW Act on the ground is the lack of its legal enforceability on the states and other Central and Government Ministries. The grant of RoW permissions is a multi-stakeholder issue…despite the passage of this Act for about four years, only a few states have come out with their own RoW rules, and even in such states, the enforceability of such rules is a huge challenge since different local bodies follow their own rules,” Airtel said.

There are multiple authorities like local bodies, railways, roadways and highways, forest departments, electricity distribution and transmission agencies among others that have granted RoW permissions for laying OFC/erection of telecom infrastructure.

Airtel said that lack of single window clearance and the complicated and time-consuming process for obtaining RoW permissions varies from state to state and is detrimental in nature for achieving faster fiber roll-outs. 

“This, coupled with exorbitant RoW fees, results in unviable commercial fibre deployments by the stakeholders for roll-out to enhance both fixed-line and mobile broadband networks’ capacity,” it said.

The telecom operator also recommended creating a “Dig Only Once” policy to incorporate designing of Utility Duct with implied RoW permission for Telecommunications in all projects. “We suggest that the proposed fiber authority define comprehensive guidelines for such ducts, build, operation, and sharing arrangement,” it added.

Airtel said that the additional burden of license fees of 8% on AGR further reduces the commercial viability of such networks. “With approximately 3% of the broadband subscribers belonging to wired subscribers, there is a real need to promote wired broadband services within the country and implement favourable policies that can stimulate the faster network roll-outs.”

The telco reiterated its demand for fixing floor tariffs to restore the financial health of the sector. It added that the move would also allow investments in the sector and enable broadband for all.

“Given the extremely competitive nature of the market, we need an unprecedented intervention. The only way to realize the orderly conduct, for now, is through the fixation of floor tariffs for a time-bound period,” it added.

On broadband speeds, Airtel said the existing definition of broadband defining the minimum download speed of 512 Kbps is working fine and it should be continued with for the next few years till the broadband infrastructure becomes omnipresent.

“India should focus on broadband penetration to more households, offices, enterprises, and buildings rather than the broadband connection capacity. This would help in broadening digital connect for end customers. Throughput speed of >512 Kbps on broadband connection is sufficient to carry all data services, including video conferencing, e-commerce, digital financial services, and any other peer to peer services,” Airtel said.

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