By Sanjeev Kakkar
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on India’s 75th Independence Day reiterated that the country will soon see the advent of 5G services along with Made in India solutions to meet the challenges of New India. It’s heartening, but at the same time it’s important to look at the present reality of telecom connectivity of Real Bharat where about 850 million rural people live. Prioritising digital transformation is a significant step by the government. Digital technology is fundamentally reorganising lives for poor people in the world. “Digital India” remains the fulcrum on which the Govt has envisioned various e-services to enhance delivery efficiencies through human ingenuity. Inclusive Digital infrastructure is essential to ensure benefits reach the farthest person at the bottom of the pyramid.
While achieving goals of making India Digital is important, making Bharat Digital is most critical. The ground reality poses startling facts. Rural teledensity stands at 58.5% as of 31 December 2021. In the last 5 years, there is a total addition of about 13 million rural subscribers only. Due to pure business priorities and with the absence of any regulatory pressure, telecom service providers (TSPs) have not contributed enough to enhance the rural teledensity further. While urban internet subscriber density stands at 103.95%, in the rural areas it stands at 37.25%. At this pace, one can imagine how long it will take to connect Bharat.
The motive of the government to introduce digitisation in rural areas is to empower individuals. It helps spread e-education in a widespread way without the constraints of distance. Agriculture assistances offer farmers an opportunity to gain an intricate understanding of their business and also how they can improve their yield, digital banking, community development etc. are a few major benefits that will be compromised if the provision of high-speed telecom connectivity for rural is delayed further.
Various schemes have been rolled out by the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) for connecting unconnected villages through USOF Funding to TSPs. There are more than 25,000 villages yet unconnected, the reality is that the targets have always slipped badly. Let’s do a critical review of the policy initiatives and see what are the key reasons for these targets being missed.
Recently, the Union Cabinet approved a Rs 1.64 lakh crore revitalisation package for BSNL, along with approval to a project that would cost a total of Rs. 26,316 crore and will bring 4G services to all unconnected villages. It’s a welcome step. BSNL has proven to be a messiah for millions of people living in the rural, remote, and unconnected corners of the country to connect with telecom connectivity. Also, it has been announced that only Indian Tech will power BSNL’s 4G – 5G upgrades.
Lack of connectivity and affordable tariff are two reasons for such a dismally low rural tele density in the country.
First is technology. Rural connectivity has peculiar challenges. Rural is a highly dispersed market. Poor availability of infrastructure, limited grid power, and poor paying capacity of masses are the real challenges. Standard urban solutions may not be the right fit and make it unviable. Significantly large left-over villages consist of a population density of 500 or 1000
per village. Provisioning of traditional 40-meter high, high-powered cell sites with the cost of ownership for ten years including capex and opex is between Rs 1.5 crore to Rs 2 crore. For the villages with a smaller population, it’s impossible to get the breakeven even with the standard 4G tariff plan of Rs 200 plus per month of the TSPs, which is not affordable to rural masses, in turn limiting the telecom penetration further.
The viability of business plans in the villages is a big concern with such solutions. Innovative design, with high power efficiency and effective deployment architecture for fast rollout could only be the real differentiator. Green Solution makes it low opex and self-sustainable which is also in line with the PM’s vision.
In the recent past, the government through Private TSPs has deployed many towers with USOF subsidy, analysis of the teledensity enhancement in the last few years after tower deployment and network utilisation of those towers can only give a fair idea if we are on the right approach.
Instead of going for the 40-meter tower sites in the villages with a low population density DOT / USOF must take a cognitive view and go for low-powered small cell sites. With BSNL operating in a 2100 MHz band for 4G, this provides requisite coverage. These sites can have a Capex of about Rs 25-30 lakhs per site and similar Opex for 10 years. Such deployment can only enable sustainable network rollout even with a lower tariff of about Rs 100 per month per subscriber for 4G and will give a viable business case for BSNL. The small cells so created can also be reused for 5G deployments in the future.
The Ministry of Rural Development (MORD) is working with the Ministry of Skill development to develop a sustainable model to promote entrepreneurship at grass root level by initiating Startup village entrepreneurship program (SVEP).
Under the program, skilling of individuals can be provided for telecom services for running, maintaining the sites, charging of the tariff coupons, and how to run the e-services as provided under CSC model. With these skills, BSNL can build local entrepreneurs to serve the village population for the above services. This will help BSNL reduce its last-mile service
cost. Rural resources could be a game changer. It would significantly help the provisioning of employment opportunities to the locals.
The above approach can ensure rapid deployable, self-sustainable, rural affordable model which can address the Digital divide and bring the farthest person in the bottom of the pyramid under “Digital India” infrastructure.
(The author is an independent telecom analyst. Views expressed are personal.)