Digital India is the latest catch phrase. Simply it means that all Indians improve their quality of life with the help of digital technologies which includes smart phones, internet, computers etc. Although Indians have been revolutionising the global map with their hi-fi knowledge of digital medium, India has been lagging behind.
If genuine attempts are made to provide all the essential facilities through digital technologies then India can bridge its gap with the developed world. For this leaders at the power centre at Delhi and state capitals need to take regular steps. Will they?
Gopal Vittal writes in The Times of India
Last week, I received a call from a Mr Gupta who complained of excessive call drops and a poor signal at his Delhi residence. On investigation, it turned out that the resident welfare association (RWA) in his neighbourhood had locked down one of the towers and was not allowing for the site to be reopened. The whole colony where he lives suffered with poor service. When I pointed this out to Mr Gupta, he confessed that he knew about the RWA’s action but couldn’t do anything about it.
Unfortunately, Mr Gupta is not unique. Thousands of tower sites are locked down for the flimsiest of reasons, inconveniencing customers. In addition, it has become almost impossible to acquire sites in key cities due to misplaced fears. The simple truth is that there are only three ways to provide good telecom services: sites, spectrum and investments. These investments are needed to procure sites and spectrum.
Sites: As smartphones become a way of life, more and more data is consumed. For a given amount of spectrum, the only way to serve this demand is to have more sites. This has become especially true in cities where there has been an explosive growth of smartphones.
Getting permissions to put up more mobile sites is now a nightmare. Airtel, for instance, needs over 200 sites in Lutyens’ Delhi itself. Only 117 have been allowed to be installed. What exacerbates the problem is that 17 of these sites have been shut down last week. This situation is not restricted to Delhi.
It is the same story in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Patna, Jaipur, Coimbatore, Dehradun, Shillong and scores of other cities as demand generated by smartphones outstrips the supply of sites. As we speak, thousands of sites are being shut down in several cities because of irrational fears attached to them.
India operates under the strictest norms for mobile towers. Our emission standards are one-tenth that of global averages and far more stringent than even Europe. Yet, we struggle.
Take the stark contrast between Delhi and Seoul, a city on top of the charts for the quality of broadband infrastructure. Seoul has more than eight times the number of mobile sites as Delhi.
Spectrum: In the last few months, the government has made substantial progress in enabling a free market for spectrum, releasing supply from government departments and is about to release guidelines for improving efficiency through trading and sharing.
Yet, as smartphones drive broadband growth, airwaves remain overcrowded. Each megahertz (MHz) of 3G spectrum in Delhi, for instance, carries 14 times the traffic of Shanghai and seven times that of Singapore. That is simply because Indian operators hold an average of about 13 MHz of spectrum each, compared to their global peers who hold almost 50-100 MHz each.
We need more spectrum on priority to help grow our digital infrastructure. Investments: Airtel has cumulatively invested Rs 1,60,000 crore since its inception. Of this, close to 70% has been invested in the last five years. Last year, Airtel invested Rs 30,000 crore in buying spectrum. Making investments in additional sites to leverage this spectrum is a very tiny part of the overall investment made. So, to shy away from making additional investment in setting up mobile sites is daft. It’s only by investing that India can improve its digital infrastructure.
So what is the solution? Telecom companies need a holistic drive and a lot of help across several constituents: government, consumer groups, industry and media.
One, the government has to enable the right environment for setting up sites by cutting the need for gaining multiple permissions from multiple authorities. Once that is done, telecom sites must be declared an essential infrastructure so that they don’t get shut down due to some flimsy reason.
Two, consumer groups and civil society should demand more sites. It is not enough to say telecom services need improvement — we have to be able to insist on getting the sites up in order to improve services.
Three, we need to come together as an industry to share infrastructure and sites so that we use less diesel and emit lesser carbon. Tele-infrasharing must be actively encouraged.
And, finally, the media must help educate citizens on the stringency of India’s emission standards and the safety of mobile sites.