The Indian telecom sector is undergoing a paradigm shift due to the emergence of new growth drivers, an evolving competitive landscape and changing business dynamics. Data has emerged as the new focal point for operators as they chart growth strategies to stay profitable in a highly competitive market. In such a scenario, the role as well as the focus of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is evolving significantly. The need for regulatory support for ensuring quality of service (QoS), proliferation of broadband, and drawing up a framework for emerging technologies like cloud computing is of paramount importance. Currently, TRAI is carrying out a plethora of consultations and framing recommendations on a variety of relevant issues. In an interview with Indian Infrastructure, R.S. Sharma, chairman, TRAI, talks about the regulator’s role, current focus areas and way forward for the sector…
What have been TRAI’s achievements in the past year in terms of resolving the sector’s regulatory challenges?
Call drop has been an issue of public concern for some time. However, considerable efforts by the regulator such as close monitoring of the situation, conducting extensive drive tests and interacting with operators over performance improvement, as well as efforts by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and the industry, have improved the call drop situation.
Lack of ubiquitous broadband connectivity is another area of concern. TRAI has given recommendations to the government to create a regulatory regime that promotes data play in the country. We have provided recommendations on the BharatNet project, public Wi-Fi hotspots, and use of digital cable TV infrastructure for providing broadband services. Other challenges are those related to cloud computing and net neutrality; public consultations have been done on these issues.
How has the regulator’s role changed with growing competition and consolidation in the sector?
TRAI is responsible for protecting the interests of telecom service providers and consumers, and ensuring growth of the sector. It has given forbearance to operators to fix tariffs and ensure the protection of consumer interests through healthy competition in the sector. This has worked fine so far and resulted in satisfactory sector growth.
As a regulator, we have to ensure that customers get good QoS at affordable prices. This may require huge investments and may result in some consolidation in the sector. Maintaining a fine balance between healthy competition and consolidation has become the new challenge for the regulator.
Do you believe that the ongoing price wars among operators call for regulatory intervention in price determination?
TRAI had a meeting with the chief executive officers (CEOs) of telecom companies on the financial health of the sector. The CEOs suggested some measures like reduction in the licence fee and Universal Service Obligation Fund levy, reduction in spectrum usage charges, review of the spectrum auction design, relaxation in the spectrum payout terms keeping in view the existing debt burden on telecom companies, ease of doing business in the telecom sector, promotion of wireline infrastructure, and issues of reduction in the goods and services tax rate.
Some telecom service providers also put forth that TRAI should establish a floor price. However, after detailed discussions with the industry, it was collectively decided that there is no need to introduce a floor price and pricing of services must continue to remain under forbearance.
According to you, what are the key issues facing the broadband segment that need immediate attention and resolution?
During the course of consultations on the proliferation of broadband in the country, one of the most consistent issues highlighted by the stakeholders has been the obtaining of right of way (RoW). Further, RoW charges were identified as the single biggest impediment to the proliferation of telecom networks.
The RoW rules released in November 2016 lay down a clear framework for the expeditious grant of approvals in a transparent and uniform manner with regard to the installation of mobile towers and laying of optical fibre cable. The rules are applicable only to land owned by government bodies. However, the implementation of these rules is a key issue, with considerable differences in their execution across states and multiple local bodies within the states.
Also, our cities suffer from frequent digging of roads by various telecom and broadcasting agencies. This issue can be solved by laying common duct infrastructure that can be shared by various agencies. TRAI is closely working with the Jharkhand government on this issue. The city of Deoghar has been chosen for conducting a pilot project to lay common ducts for all customers including operators, internet service providers, government organisations and private organisations/institutions. Ducts are to be laid along all the roads in the city. The request for proposal for the project will be issued shortly. If this pilot project is found feasible, the same will be recommended to the government for implementation in other cities.
What are the key focus areas of the regulator at present?
Proliferation of broadband is a key focus area of the authority. Although the number of data users is rising steadily and data consumption is increasing, there are a large number of people who still remain unconnected. Implementation of the BharatNet project, which aims to cover 250,000 gram panchayats, has not yielded results as expected. TRAI did a suo moto consultation and the public-private-partnership (PPP) model was found to be best suited for the implementation of the project. PPPs seek to combine the private sector’s capacity for project delivery with the government’s role as an enabler to overcome market failures. The authority perceives the build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) model as the most suitable to ensure long-term incentive alignment and reduce varied risks.
TRAI is also committed to improve the QoS and customer experience, enhance the availability of broadband through Wi-Fi, facilitate government initiatives on e-governance through the penetration of internet services, uphold net neutrality and prescribe a clear framework for the implementation of cloud computing.
What has been the progress on the QoS front?
There has been considerable improvement in the call drop scenario. Instances of noncompliance with the QoS benchmarks have decreased. TRAI is currently reviewing the QoS standards for network-related parameters of cellular mobile services so as to improve the quality of experience of users.
In this regard, TRAI is looking into the methodology for measuring network parameters, especially call drops, so that the problem areas can be identified and appropriately addressed. In addition, we have created platforms to monitor both data and voice quality. For instance, the MySpeed application allows customers to measure their data speeds and the results are published on a portal. The idea is to have transparency in terms of coverage, data speed and other QoS-related parameters.
What has been the progress on the roll-out of public Wi-Fi in the country? What role is the regulator playing in this regard?
In India, providing last-mile connectivity is a big challenge. Wi-Fi technology can be used for extending last-mile broadband access to a wider segment of users. Wi-Fi networks can offer affordable, scalable and versatile connectivity that can facilitate the spread of internet access in rural and urban areas alike. For India to reach a goal of one hotspot for every 150 people, 8 million additional hotspots will have to be installed.
Accordingly, after a consultation process, TRAI had made recommendations to DoT on “Proliferation of Broadband through Public Wi-Fi Networks”, suggesting a new framework to be put in place for setting up public data offices (PDOs). Under this framework, PDOs in agreement with public data office aggregators should be allowed to provide public Wi-Fi services. This will not only increase the number of public hotspots, but also make internet service more affordable in the country.
Based on the recommendation, TRAI has invited all interested parties to be a part of the pilot Wi-Fi project. A total of 70 entities have expressed interest.
What announcements can be expected from TRAI in the coming months?
Increasing broadband penetration in the country continues to be the key focus area for us. Enhancing Wi-Fi hotspots to provide ubiquitous broadband coverage to citizens is our priority. TRAI is also working on various issues to ensure transparency and customer awareness regarding data speeds under wireless broadband plans. Besides, we continue to focus on consumer protection and QoS-related issues.
In the coming months, TRAI will notify new regulations regarding network-related QoS parameters for cellular mobile services. Also, it will finalise its recommendations on cloud computing, internet telephony and net neutrality. TRAI is also working to finalise interconnection user charges.