COAI Rajan Mathews on India telecom industry in 2019

Rajan S Mathews, director general of COAI (Cellular Operators Association of India) says the year 2019 can be dubbed as the year of the digital and the internet for everyone.
COAI director general Rajan Mathews on spectrum

Indian telecommunications industry has witnessed significant strides on several important aspects, be it in terms of widening and strengthening of telecom infrastructures or digitally connecting the last mile through affordable and sustainable communication services. The year also witnessed added fillip to emerging technologies, such as 5G, IoT, AI, AR and the like.

While there were many new beginnings, there were also a few challenges which did not augur well for the already cash crunched telecom sector, lurching under rising debts, falling revenues and collapsing profit margins. While the consolidations, cascading taxations, hyper competitions and the resultant low tariffs shook the sector to the core, no actual relief was announced in the Government Budget 2019-20.

We expect this situation to improve going forward. The Indian telecommunication sector is currently the second largest and fastest growing in the world, with the number of telephone subscribers reaching to (both fixed and mobile phone), 1.19 billion as on 30 September 2019, However, it is still faced with issues such as intermittent call drops, less to no network coverage in some parts of the country, etc. Yet, in terms of data usage, the number stands at a staggering 5.3 million TB (Terra Bytes) per month.

The industry has advocated for better policy reforms and soft touch regulatory environment and has worked in tandem with the Government, to build a world class telecom infrastructure providing connectivity to all and sundry. Still, much is yet to be done if the Government’s ambitious Digital India program is to be realised soon, in its true letter and spirit.

While the NDCP 2018 came out with a detailed prescription to restore the health of the sector and lay the road-map for future growth, the implementation needs to be speeded up. NDCP is focused on bringing in long-term sustainability and stability into the sector, while readying the ground for new emerging technologies.

With proposed targets such as universal broadband coverage of 50Mbps, 10Gbps at all Gram Panchayats, 10 million public Wi-Fi Hotspots and 4 million new jobs, India will definitely be a global knowledge economy to be reckoned with.

Also, with 5G and other emerging technology, poised to be the way of life in the near future, telecom’s absolute indispensability cannot be ignored. Once 5G gets commercially deployed, India is set to witness several disruptive alterations that will not only transform business landscapes and networks, but will go a long way in making India an economically stronger global knowledge economy.

COAI believes that the Supreme Court ruling on the telecom sector revenue definition, will deal a disastrous blow to the industry, given its precarious financial condition. Given the broad implication of the Supreme Court ruling which has now ensnared companies outside the telecom space, we hope the Government will devise a suitable way out of the corundum.

DoT said 5G spectrum auction will be held by early 2020. The government plans to auction around 8,293.95 MHz of airwaves at an estimated total base price of Rs 5.86 lakh crore. DoT has suggested a base price for 5G airwaves at Rs 492 crore per MHz and proposed a sale of a minimum 20 MHz blocks, which would mean a telco spending close to Rs 10,000 crore for 20 MHz, and Rs 50,000 crore for 100 MHz.

There has been uncertainty over Huawei and ZTE’s participation in India’s 5G field trials and commercial networks going forward. Indian telecom operators had earlier this year sought clarity over the participation of Huawei in 5G field trials and permitting its equipment in their 5G networks. The Indian government has already conveyed that it will not compromise on the security of its telecom networks and accords high priority to data sovereignty while deciding on the issue.

Telecom operators in October this year urged the government to look into spectrum pricing as they are currently exorbitant. We request an early referral from DoT to TRAI to make a recommendation for including the 26 GHz band for the planned spectrum auction in conjunction with other bands as this is imperative and will have a significant bearing on realising the deployment of 5G in India.