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RoW Framework: Draft guidelines seek to accelerate OFC roll-out
The Indian telecom sector is entering the next phase of growth characterised by the data revolution and the increasing demand for optic fibre cable (OFC). This can be largely attributed to the rapid uptake of smartphones and the need for improved broadband connectivity. Indian consumers are increasingly shifting towards video-based applications such as video-on-demand and HDTV, thus driving data consumption on the access side and creating a demand pull for OFC network expansion.
Despite the growing demand for OFC adoption, on-the-ground deployment continues to be low on account of several challenges. The task of approaching multiple agencies for obtaining right-of-way (RoW) clearances for OFC deployment leads to significant delays in network roll-out. Further, the current state/municipal-level regulations and fees vary from state to state. The charges are typically very high and arbitrary, and so steep in certain cases that the cost of OFC deployment turns out to be more than the cost of the OFC itself. The process of obtaining approvals is also very cumbersome. It is not easy to secure a no-objection certificate. In addition, exorbitant levies imposed by various municipalities and state bodies effectively increase the cost of service provision, making it unviable to provide high speed internet and broadband services to the masses. These challenges also adversely impact flagship government programmes such as Digital India, Broadband for All, and the Smart Cities Mission.
RoW policy a welcome step
To streamline the process for the grant of RoW, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has drafted RoW guidelines. The draft rules lay down critical principles for grant of RoW approvals, including their applicability to telecom and internet licensees, the time period for the disposal of RoW applications, and the levy of administrative charges for processing applications. The guidelines will help create an enforceable framework for the grant of RoW for laying cable networks, installing towers and facilitating coordination between service providers and state governments/local bodies.
The draft guidelines call for a single-window clearance from all RoW granting state and central agencies/authorities to telecom service providers and infrastructure providers in a timely manner. Further, the rules require all infrastructure sectors as specified in the harmonised list – for example, road construction authorities like the National Highways Authority of India – to include a clause in their architectural design requirements to ensure the provision of a utility duct for laying of OFC for new infrastructure. For existing infrastructure, a Dig Only Once policy approach should be followed. RoW agencies and authorities are also required to mark an area for the laying of underground cable far away from the road, taking into consideration the expansion plans for the next 10 years, to save on operators’ investments and service disruption during expansion. Further, the rules lay down strong administrative and legal provisions for compensation in case of cable cuts or damage by government agencies, or private third-party agencies undertaking digging work. Standardisation of RoW rates and uniform issuance procedures for all central and state agencies has also been highlighted. In addition, the rules state that only charges for reinstatement or restoration of the surroundings to their original state should be allowed; RoW approvals should be granted on priority; and any denial to grant RoW in exceptional circumstances should be recorded along with the reasons.
According to the guidelines, a mechanism should be developed by the central and state governments for the use of electricity poles for last mile access infrastructure. A change has been suggested in the existing building by-laws to allow for mandatory inclusion of either ducts or OFC with well-defined access mechanisms in upcoming office complexes, commercial spaces and residential complexes. This would have a significant and positive impact on broadband penetration. Further, the fibre infrastructure network of a telecom service provider should be awarded critical infrastructure status. Meanwhile, the central government needs to lay down standard rules and procedures for laying overhead fibre that can be deployed by state governments and state bodies.
ConclusionGiven the need for a robust OFC network to carry the exponentially increasing data traffic, the shortly expected RoW guidelines will address the majority of the deployment issues and go a long way in accelerating OFC roll-out, thereby increasing broadband penetration in the country.
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