In today’s era of digitalization, roti, kapda, and makan are barely enough to meet the basic need of consumers around the world. There is a constant urge to stay connected today, which during the pandemic became a necessity with everyone sitting in the isolation of their homes. The Internet has become an indispensable need in the modern world, and the telecom sector is the backbone that provides the required impetus for the socio-economic growth of today. The sector shoulders immense responsibility for necessitating last-mile connectivity in India. Not only will this usher in a technological revolution in Bharat’s history, but it will also herald a new era for industries while dramatically transforming lifestyles.
The telecom sector is the third largest sector in terms of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows. As per TRAI, India is one of the biggest consumers of data worldwide with overall wireless internet data usage having increased almost 7 folds in 2021. Telecommunication is a crucial instrument for businesses, governments, and society for stimulating steady growth and holding the key to serving the marginalized.
The government of India recognizes the increasing importance of the telecom industry which bodes well for its future aspirations of continued growth. With the announcement of the National Broadband Mission, the country embarked on an intrepid journey of bringing last mile connectivity in every village and fiberizing at least 55% of mobile towers with an average speed of 25Mbps. It has made efforts to understand and address the digital divide and ensure inclusive growth by bringing marginalized areas into the mainstream through its flagship programs such as Digital India, building the required infrastructure through National Master Plan, Sugam Sanchar, and building a robust telecom ecosystem through their renewed focus on Bharat Net and Productive Incentive Scheme (PLI) plan. The Indian telecom industry grew rapidly in 2020-21, primarily driven by affordable tariffs, wider availability, and huge competition.
Various milestone decisions in 2021 such as the announcement of structural reforms by the Union Cabinet are the steps in the right direction as they are yielding results and will further enable the industry to strengthen itself and provide more affordable and high-quality services. The Government of India is also focused on enhancing the ease of doing business and reducing and simplifying the compliance burden.
5G is the future of the telecom industry. It is a new-age technology that will open infinite possibilities for propelling growth. It is the roadmap to our country’s future growth and socio-economic development, which aspires to become a $5 trillion economy by 2025. India’s 5G subscriptions will reach 350 million by 2026 accounting for 27% of all mobile subscriptions. By 2025, India will need 22 million skilled workers in 5G-centric technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, and cloud computing. 5G will be the leading driver of growth in every sector from agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, education, robotics, and blockchain to AI-powered drones. In robotics alone, the global market is projected to reach $75.3 billion by 2026.
Although the benefits offered by 5G services are substantial, operators’ efforts to monetize the technology face some fundamental challenges. Traditionally, operators’ revenues have been primarily consumer driven. With 5G, by contrast, consumer awareness is lower and most of the biggest players have yet to introduce upgraded handsets all of which may result in a slower uptake. But to achieve returns sufficient to justify their 5G investments, operators will need to look beyond selling broadband connectivity and target new types of use cases that are specifically enabled by 5G’s unprecedented capabilities specific to India which are still in the nascent stage.
Operators are struggling with challenges such as investments to produce reliable and affordable broadband connections that reach every corner of the nation to provide connectivity. Optical Fiber Cables (OFCs) are prime crucibles to drive the benefits of the revolutionary 5G technology. Currently, only around 34% of mobile towers are connected with fiber and an investment of around Rs 2.2 trillion would be required in optical fiber infrastructure to fiberize 70% of towers in the next four years. In a price-sensitive market such as India, effective spectrum pricing is a very critical concern. According to the recent TRAI recommendation, there has been only a 35-40% reduction in prices while the industry had recommended a 90% lowering of prices. These pricings need to be revisited by the regulatory body as India is a price-sensitive market and a high reserve price has often been a factor for spectrum remaining unsold, thereby making for unviable and unsustainable business cases.
The industry strongly believes there is enough and more headroom available to reduce spectrum prices by 90%, in line with global norms. This will further provide relief to the Telecom Service Providers (TSP) and will help narrow the digital divide. Other key challenges that the Indian market faces are related to licenses and levies. There is a need to implement uniform RoW charges across states and rationalize and regulatory levies such as LF, SUC, USO levy. Myths around EMF radiation are also a prevalent issue as the installation of telecom towers is critical given that the backbone of mobile communication rests on them.
These challenges should be met with reliable solutions to ensure a smooth rollout for 5G technology which will further unleash another wave of innovation. India is one of the fastest and largest growing markets for digital consumers and digitization in the world. Once 5G comes into the picture, the revolutionary technology will accelerate India’s digital transformation by providing different types of services in India, such as rural broadband, enhanced broadband in urban areas, enabling smart cities through support for IoT, and enabling critical communication through support for ultra-reliable low latency communication.
By the end of 2025, 5G will account for over a fifth of total mobile connections, and more than two in five people globally will live within reach of a 5G network by 2027, 5G will represent around 39% of mobile subscriptions in India, with an estimated 500 million subscriptions. That will have a cumulative economic impact of $1 trillion by 2035 and will make our country a global digital powerhouse. It’s for us to make the future happen, now.
(The author is director-general, Cellular Operators Association of India. COAI is an industry group of telecom operators and telecom gear providers.)