The year that was: Digital India 2.0

By Rajan S Mathews, New Delhi
06/01/2017   0 Comments

For an industry which is all-pervasive and is as large as telecom, it is not an easy task to sum up the entire year in binaries. There were many shades that the Indian telecom industry experienced in 2016 which was also a year of turbulence and flux for the sector.  
The year 2016 witnessed a higher level of synergy between the Indian telecom industry and the Government and a lot of issues were tackled jointly and in cooperation with each other. The year started with the issue of call drops vexing both customers and operators. The TRAI order was successfully challenged by operators in the Supreme Court which finally and decisively put the matter to rest, allowing the operators to focus on the root causes. 
The Government also provided the much-needed support by clearing several long-pending issues like those of uniform Right of Way (RoW), spectrum sharing, trading guidelines and spectrum harmonisation. 
The successful auction of spectrum helped the Government garner Rs 65,789 crore. This is a major step for future advancement in mobility and will help India move closer to meeting its tele-density target. Taking forward the industry’s commitment of providing the best services, the operators further rolled out 4G LTE networks. The Government was able to harmonise spectrum as per global standards. 
Reliance Jio was launched into the telecom sector. It commenced its commercial service by introducing an innovative package, including a free voice for life. This led to a major confrontation with other operators over POIs which finally got addressed by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Recommendations of the TRAI are being reviewed by the Department of Telecom. The free voice service from the RJIL led to competitors adjusting their tariffs.

A sum of about Rs 9,27,000 crore has been invested so far by TSPs in building a world class Telecom Infrastructure. This is the second largest private sector investment in infrastructure among all the sectors in India. To support the orderly growth of the telecom sector, TSPs have invested about Rs 3, 27,000 crore in Spectrum Auctions alone since 2010.
To address the problem of call drops, there was an addition of about 3.51 lakh BTSs in the last 12 months. The RoW guidelines were cleared by the Government, which will fast-forward India into the digital world by ensuring a rollout of optical fibre cables and over ground telecom infrastructure. This in turn will ensure the success of the Digital India Mission. The industry has made consistent and significant efforts to optimize networks which have largely been completed, with more than two lakh sites being installed during the last 15 months for 2G and 3G services across the country since January 1, 2015.  

The spectrum auction took place successfully in the month of October. However, 700 MHz spectrum remained unsold due to an unrealistic reserve price. The industry has asked that the prices be aligned with market forces and the spectrum be put up for auction again in two years’ time. The industry is now looking forward to obtaining the spectrum and rolling out the networks speedily so that consumer experience may be made seamless. An ambitious and robust blueprint for transforming the digital identity of the country will be completed on the additional spectrum that has been sold in what has been a successful auction.
Another big achievement was the Government’s release of E-KYC norms which allow the use of Aadhaar e-KYC service of the UIDAI for issuing connections to mobile subscribers in India. The e-KYC will address the problem of fraudulent elements getting telephone connections on forged or fake documents. 
An Aadhaar-based activation process will also bring in process efficiency by supporting the mammoth infrastructure otherwise required for connecting millions of verified citizens. It will give a big boost to the Digital India Mission of the Government of India apart from saving lakhs of trees and addressing the extremely important issue of national security. 

India is yet to witness a breakthrough of interconnected devices. A connected ecosystem will act as a catalyst in changing the future of mobile devices and enhancing their utility. More people will move to the 4G network in order to benefit from the services that the Internet of Things (IoT) has to offer, making life convenient.  
By 2020, Internet-connected devices are expected to number between 26 billion and 50 billion globally. The IoT through an interplay of software, telecom and hardware promises to offer tremendous opportunities for many industries. 
Fed by sensors soon to number in the trillions, working with intelligent systems in the billions, and involving millions of applications, the IoT will drive new consumer and business behaviour that will demand increasingly intelligent industry solutions such as virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and robots.
Machine-to-machine technology has a huge potential to disrupt communications in the upcoming years. Telcos will invest huge sums on M2M communications, which is predicted to grow at a staggering rate of 40% annually by the end of the decade. M2M technology offers a variety of benefits, including low power consumption and a low cost and effective connection. A forward looking global approach is required with inputs from the private sector to create a conducive regulatory environment for both the IoT and M2M technology to fully achieve their potential as the Internet is united, universal, interoperable and global.
A recommendation by the TRAI to implement a flat Spectrum Usage Charge (SUC) for the industry is expected to bring uniformity and introduce a level-playing field. The decision will not only bring simplification, but will also eliminate the possibility of arbitrage and help reduce the heavy financial burden levied on the industry. Currently, different SUC rates are applicable for spectrum assigned at different points of time. Varied SUC rates can cause a lot of ambiguities while entering into transactions pertaining to mergers and acquisition deals, spectrum sharing and spectrum trading.  
The customer base continues to grow for voice and data services. The number of telephone subscribers rose from 1,036.41 million at December-end in 2015 to 1,074.24 million as on September 30, 2016 with a monthly growth rate of 1.98%. The yearly growth rate in telephone subscribers in the wireless segment is 5.33%. Overall tele-density increased from 81.83 million on December 31, 2015 to 84.09 million as on September 30, 2016. The share of rural subscribers is 41.88% and that of urban subscribers is 58.12%.
Broadband subscribers have reached 192.30 million as in September 2016, highlighting the growth rate of 11.99%. Total Internet subscribers were 350 million as on June 30, 2016 with a quarterly growth of 2.28%. 
The Indian telecom industry also made key interventions at the 11th meeting of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum in Mexico. The telecom industry has been instrumental in bringing out the potential of billions of citizens across the world. The Indian industry in particular deserves appreciation for constantly innovating and providing an enhanced consumer experience against all odds. ICTs in India have led to greater human development.  
(The author is the Director General of the Cellular Operators Association of India.) 


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