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Interview with Vimal Wakhlu, CMD, TCIL
How has the company performed over the past year? What have been some of its key achievements?
The company has performed reasonably well over the past year. We received a $30 million telecom network modernisation project from Sierratel, an incumbent service provider in Sierra Leone, and are in the process of implementing the same. We have also bagged a few fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) projects in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait.
In the telecom consultancy space, we are providing services for the Asian Development Bank-funded South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation programme in Nepal and Bhutan.
We are also working on security-related IT projects. In the telecom space, the company plays the role of a systems integrator and facilitates projects related to e-education, e-health and e-governance.
In India, we have won two civil projects on a build-own-operate-transfer basis in Madhya Pradesh, which are currently being implemented.
What technology trends do you foresee in the sector?
IP-based networks would replace conventional networks, and fixed mobile convergence as well as FTTH and 4G wireless networks will be deployed on a large scale. FTTH is a viable option for urban areas, as it is an economical medium. A fibre-based network at the aggregation level and a wireless network for the access level are suitable for rural areas. Installing these networks is a priority for several operators and deployments are expected from early-2013. We are in talks with telecom operators for deploying FTTH networks.
A major advantage of fixed mobile convergence is efficient utilisation of spectrum. Intelligent mobile systems, which can identify the user’s location, can transfer the call to the nearest landline.
What are your views on the government’s norms regarding radiation emissions from telecom towers? What role does the company play in implementing them?
The radio frequency (RF) radiation norms are significant for addressing health-related issues resulting from RF radiation exposure. These are aimed at reducing radiation levels to one-tenth of the requirement under the previous norms. It is a bold move and could help India become an example for others.
There are two facets of this challenge – radiation from mobile towers and substandard handsets. These should be addressed simultaneously, and service providers as well as device manufacturers need to cooperate to ensure this.
We have been given the task of monitoring radiation levels on a commercial basis. The government has initiated a pilot project for this purpose in Mumbai. We check the radiation levels at sites for a fee and share the results with complainants. We will launch the project in Delhi in the near future, and then in other parts of the country.
What is your view on 3G service uptake? What is the outlook for 4G services?
4G will witness higher uptake than 3G, as the latter has not been able to promote data services. 3G services are a passing phase in India. 4G will offer improved streaming for services such as video-on-demand, which will encourage users to opt for them. Globally, 4G has been launched in several countries.
In India, long term evolution (LTE) advanced networks hold the promise to reduce the energy demand from telecom networks in rural areas, as base stations operating on this technology have significantly lower power requirements, which can be met through a small solar panel. This will reduce dependence on the erratic grid supply at rural sites.
What role does the company play in rolling out telecom services in rural areas?
Rolling out any service in rural India is a challenge. Gaps in network backhaul limit the reach of telecom services in rural areas. To address this issue, the government has launched the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN), for which we have been given task of project management.
The project is aimed at connecting 250,000 village panchayats using optical fibre, and is targeted to be completed by December 2013. The NOFN project is expected to ensure that broadband connectivity of at least 100 Mbps is available at each gram panchayat. Applications such as e-health, e-education, e-governance, e-commerce and videoconferencing will be supported on this network. Accessing agricultural information through the mobile handset and services like m-banking would result in a paradigm shift in rural India. This would help in effective monitoring of schemes under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and ensuring transparent project implementation.
The project is expected to facilitate the proliferation of telecom services in rural areas, particularly applications such as data and video. This will open up a lucrative market for telecom service providers, since 70 per cent of Indians living in rural areas are yet to be connected.
TCIL has also set up the Kisan Call Centre, which provides information on agriculture-related issues to farmers. Also, the Kisan Knowledge Management Centre has helped the government in mitigating the impact of natural disasters on the agricultural sector.
What are the key challenges facing TCIL?
The economic slowdown has been a major challenge. The sector has witnessed a slowdown in business owing to the current environment of uncertainty. This means fewer telecom system integration projects in the country.
Telecom service providers have stopped investing in networks owing to a cash crunch. Moreover, the cancellation of licences earlier this year has made banks wary about providing loans to operators.
Once the long-standing issues are addressed, operators would revive their focus on investments. They will be willing to deploy new technologies and ensure future-proof investments, which would pave the way for FTTH, IP-based and 4G networks and fixed-mobile convergence.
What are the company’s investment and operational plans for 2012-13?
We plan to enter business segments such as e-waste management and managed services. We are offering managed services to corporate clients, particularly public sector units on a pay-as-you-use basis. These services would be future-proof and any advances in technology would be automatically supported.
We also offer an e-tendering platform and are planning to expand to other markets in this segment. We manufacture optical fibre cables through our group company Tamil Nadu Telecom Limited, in collaboration with Fujikura Japan, which supplies fibre.
Besides, we would like to leverage our areas of strength like e-networks. Projects such as the Pan-African e-Network and the SAARC e-network have been a learning experience for us. The high potential of e-applications, particularly in the space of distance education and health services, has encouraged us to approach various central and state universities in India for similar projects. We are also planning to enhance our consultancy services.
Where do you see the telecom sector in two-three years?
All the aforementioned new technologies are expected to change the face of the sector. The new players would invest in technologies such as the IP-based multimedia subsystem platform to ensure the feasibility of voice calls on LTE systems and the deployment of 4G wireless networks.
Also, going forward, these technologies will reduce costs related to telecom infrastructure and equipment. For example, establishing the infrastructure associated with telecom towers entails a cost of Rs 4.5 million-Rs 5 million. 4G will help reduce these costs significantly, as it will involve lower infrastructure and energy requirements at sites. In addition, infrastructure such as solar panels and batteries will be extensively used to power these tower sites.
What role will renewable energy sources play in the telecom sector?
Going forward, renewable energy sources would be extensively used in the sector. They will help in reducing energy costs at the site. This is especially relevant for sites located in remote areas.
The high fuel costs associated with telecom operations are a major challenge for the sector. In this context, TCIL and its partners offer operators a viable option, wherein we invest in green power solutions for tower sites in return for a share in the energy cost savings thus achieved. This is a win-win-win situation for the service providers in terms of cost reduction, the country in terms of reduced oil import bills, reduced pollution and thus a cleaner environment, and for us, in terms of increased revenues.
How important is e-waste management for the telecom industry?With consumers frequently changing their mobile handsets, laptops, PCs, etc., the e-waste management business will gain significance for the industry. Certain components of electronic devices (such as batteries) are hazardous, and need proper disposal. The current disposal processes are primitive and can impact the ecology by poisoning groundwater, flora and fauna, etc. There is a mechanism for properly disposing of these waste products, wherein they are brought to a central location and disposed of scientifically by conversion into other products.
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