“Out of the one-lakh gram panchayats, 83,000 are connected with fibre and electronic equipment are up at the block levels. All the one-lakh villages will be ready by December 31. The service delivery will also start, for which, we have announced BharatNet tariff that is incidentally one-fourth of the average commercial tariff,” said Telecom Secretary, Aruna Sundararajan.
Sundararajan, who is also heading the mass project — BharatNet – for connecting all the villages in the country and digitise them to give benefits, in an interview with BusinessLine shared more details on other projects such as Wi-Fi hotspots in villages and how data are going to be a major monetising driving force for the companies. Excerpts:
What is the status of the BharatNet project? Is the first phase going to meet the December deadline?
Out of the one-lakh gram panchayats, 83,000 are connected with fibre and electronic equipment are up at the block levels. All the one-lakh villages will be ready by December 31. The service delivery will also start, for which, we have announced BharatNet tariff that is incidentally one-fourth of the average commercial tariff. Now, all the service providers have started figuring out which areas they want to deliver services. Services will be delivered in three ways – aerial fibre to the homes (fibre to home); through the telecom towers (by the TSPs), and Wi-Fi hotspots, for which we are putting a separate tender for pan India. The tender will be out hopefully before November 10.
Wi-Fi is the main distribution line. We expect that five-lakh Wi-Fi hotspots will be operational by December 2018. So, even though we would not have completed the phase-II of the BharatNet in the rest 1.50 lakh gram panchayats by March 2019, Wi-Fi will still be available for accessing internet and mobile broadband in all the 2.50 lakh gram panchayats. So, we are not actually expecting 2.50 lakh gram panchayats, but somewhere around 5-6 lakh Wi-Fi hotspots pan India by December next year. We have around 38,000 Wi-Fi hotspots already in the country. The budget already sanctioned for this project is ₹3,600 crore.
DoT had issued mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) policy. What is the status? How many MVNOs have been launched so far?
We have launched MVNO on May 31, 2016. Presently, we have 106 MVNO licences. There are provisions, but they have to work out and see which TSP they are partnering with.
With only few operators left do you think MVNO makes sense?
India is a huge market for data and we have still not tapped even a few. Even now, our internet penetration in rural areas is fairly modest. There is a huge scope for growth even in urban areas. Everything is going to be on the internet. What you are seeing now is a dynamic mark, so this is going to play out something which you and I cannot foresee today.
The bigger question is how to monetise data while talking about data protection/ privacy, etc. What is your comment?
Increasingly, whether we like it or not, we are going to see the monetisation of data and that is why we said data is the new oil/ asset. It will be monetised in different ways and indirectly. For example, the social media platforms, they don’t have a direct model of monetisation, while there are others who have. This is an emerging space and there will be a set of completely new platforms and players who will emerge on the content side. Everybody will not monetise in the same way so they cannot be regulated on similar models. For instance, the open data policy states that there are certain data which the government wants to make available to people to derive value – as long as it is not infringing privacy.
The IMG has said that the reserve price of spectrum should follow international best practices. Will DoT agree to them?
The IMG has concluded that there is an interim liquidity stress. Based on representations from the Finance Ministry, banking industry, and others they had done an analysis. They believe this is only an interim and not a long-term permanent phenomenon. The second thing they had said was that although there had been deep erosion in revenues, they were already observing an upward trend in the industry in the revenues of the TSPs. So, we will have to continue to watch the situations.
As far as spectrum is concerned, often people say about the high-price perspective. But, it is the TSPs who have clearly driven the prices of spectrum to that level. Now, going forward, what kind of spectrum should be made available for 5G, for the future requirements, etc, in the context of the national telecom policy (NTP), we will take a call keeping in view the recommendations of TRAI, IMG, and others. So, in the NTP, we will be taking a detailed decision.
Number of operators are exiting or shutting down, people are losing jobs, and there are only three-four viable operators in the sector. Is this a desirable situation? Will government look at giving new licences to increase competition?
I think four players is a good number we have for a market like India. And, there will be other kinds of niche players who would come. For example, Reliance Communications has already said that they are going to focus on data services. A lot more specialisation, niche players will start emerging in the market because India is a large market and you cannot really have ‘one size fits all’ kind of service delivery. This is a highly evolving field and it would be premature to say that this is exactly how Indian telecom market and industry will evolve. TRAI already has given a lot of recommendations on the cloud, opening up of internet telephony and all that. So, we will have to continue to evolve and the regulations will continue have to evolve to pace with that.
Telecom service providers have been demanding for reduction in levies. Will the government agree?
I don’t really know what kind of recommendations will come from telecom policy and the stakeholders. Let’s wait and see for it.
(This article was published on November 1, 2017)
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