You have mentioned that a forum has been set up to look at the 5G deployment roadmap. Can you tell us more about the forum?

The 5G forum that has been set up has got all representatives from all the IITs, secretaries from the department of telecom, ministry of electronics and IT, and department of science and technology, and an eminent panel of international experts as well, because the idea is to bring in international best practices. We have 10 task forces that are doing some very deep work. These task forces are looking at things like developing standards, a research ecosystem and spectrum. One task force is also looking at developing strategic capabilities in this area, which is closely linked with manufacturing. We recognise that we cannot hope to develop capabilities in every tech, but we can pick some champions and see how they can be brought to global scale.

One of the focus points of the task forces is making 5G work for India; and its challenges like improving agriculture, planning smart energy for our dense cities, and delivering healthcare and telemedicine. So these are the things the forum will look at.

It is also looking at long-term things which need work, like what kind of intellectual property policies do we need, how do we ensure that the IITs’ curricula is changed to keep up with the new technology. There are also a couple of groups working with the industry to develop early use cases for 5G. So it is not just a policy framework; it is also about developing an implementation roadmap.

Are you on track to meet the 2020 rollout deadline?

I believe we are very much on track.

Given the current stress in the sector, telcos had asked for the next spectrum auction, which will include bands for 5G to be deferred to FY20. Is that something the government is considering?

There is a certain amount of stress and disruption in the sector, but technology like 5G really can’t wait. Unless you declare these spectrums, the device ecosystem and deployment scenarios can’t be developed. There’s a fine trade-off between the appetite for an auction now and the need to drive 5G. The telecom regulator, TRAI, will take a call and advise us accordingly.

Some industry players have called for setting up shared infrastructure networks wherein companies can only invest in buying capacity. Is the government looking at something along similar lines?

A few countries have taken an early lead on this front. Mexico has done something like that. We are studying the Mexico model. If necessary, the government is willing to put in a part of the investment for a shared infrastructure network.

We’re working with the agriculture, health, and energy ministries as well because they need to start demonstrating the benefits of 5G in some pilot deployments.
Aruna Sundararajan, telecom secretary

The MD of Reliance Jio said on Thursday at the 5G India international conference that India isn’t 5G ready because the other technologies in the ecosystem like artificial intelligence (AI) are not ready. What is your view?

I would like to reiterate what he said in this way; it’s not a question of the networks being ready, I think they will be ready. But it’s not just about delivering huge amounts of data. It’s about the service, efficiency and innovation you are going to deliver with that data. 5G is an underlying tech, but to harvest the full potential you will need big data analysis, AI, cloud, virtual reality, augmented reality etc. The good news is that, some IT companies and telcos have already started developing some competencies on that front. But the wider industry, like healthcare, transport, and energy sectors are still not ready. They need to do much more or else neither they nor citizens will get the benefit of 5G.

One of the objectives of the 5G forum is also to create that awareness. That is why we’re working with the agriculture, health, and energy ministries as well because they need to start demonstrating the benefits in some pilot deployments. The forum will first give its roadmap, which will happen next month and or within two months at most. Discussions have already been initiated with these ministries. But we need to form special task forces, which will give the timelines. However, we should start seeing an early pilot before the end of this year.

The new telecom policy is set to be announced soon. Is there some relief expected for telcos as a part of the policy in terms of a reduction in the levies that currently apply to them?

The policy’s perspective is primarily driven by one thing. If we want to make universal broadband a reality we will need $100 billion as investment. So how do we create that investment climate? We have indicated a review of the levies and we have said that we will look at spectrum pricing issues. We are focussing on three things: bringing down the regulatory burden on the industry, ease of doing business, and incentivising migration to the next generation of technology.

Some experts are of the view that the current process of obtaining licenses and clearances makes it difficult to enter the Indian telecom industry. Any changes expected on that front?

We are working on it. We have specifically said that we will create regulatory sandboxes where normal processes of clearances and licenses will not apply. We will create spaces for innovation and entrepreneurship to happen with very light touch licenses.

We’re talking about putting up 5-6 lakh WiFi hotspots; we believe that this can create employment opportunities for at least for 1-2 lakh people.
Aruna Sundararajan, telecom secretary

You mentioned that the department was looking to redeploy people who had lost jobs into new job opportunities and that schemes like Bharatnet would open up. Can you elaborate on that?

I don’t know if we can protect the same jobs. But we must make this space attractive enough for a large number of smaller players to come in. It’s true that we may move to a three-four player market, but there is a lot of opportunity for niche, local, value-added and bundled service providers. One of the big strategies in this area is public WiFi. We are aiming to have 5 million public WiFi units as part of the scheme. In the Bharatnet tender itself, next week we are putting out the public WiFi tender where in every gram panchayat, three WiFi hotspots can be put up. Two for the people and one for a government development institution like a school, health centre or a post office. So we’re talking about putting up 5-6 lakh hotspots, we believe that this can create employment opportunities for at least for 1-2 lakh people. Then we can look at scaling it up.

We are also looking at a UPI kind of network for WiFi where any kirana shop owner, if he has a premises and he is willing to put in the infrastructure at minimal cost, can plug into a national grid for the Internet and become a provider. This is an unconventional concept wherein anybody can become an Internet provider, get some incentives in return and earn some revenues from that.

We’ve mentioned in the policy that by 2022, every citizen must have 50 MBps data. It’s aspirational but we’ve deliberately kept it at that level because every Indian deserves it.

Some industry players have said that there is a shortage of fibre in the world as of now. Is there a need to set up fibre manufacturing units in India?

In the last two-three years, India and China have hugely stepped up their demand for fibre. So there’s a global shortage. But we have names like Sterlite Tech here which have the capacity for global scale. We also want to encourage the public sector to get into fibre manufacturing. We’ve mentioned it in the policy but it has to be concretised.

To encourage the participation of women in technology and telecom, DoT & ITU will work on a joint programme for girls and young women in schools and colleges.
Aruna Sundararajan, telecom secretary

After inflight WiFi was given the green signal, there has been a lot of debate on how expensive it is going to be for the airlines to set it up. What is your view on this?

We held a follow-on meeting and contrary to what everyone was saying about the cost, every single player is very interested. I think they’re all looking at achieving a competitive edge. They are now catering to a large number of professionals who want to be in touch with their offices while flying. So they’re looking at some innovative methods to bundle the WiFi plan in the ticket or offer special packages.

Globally, India lags behind when it comes to women’s participation in the economy and gender pay gap. Are there any efforts from the government to address this issue?

I’m a strong proponent of the belief that low women participation is denting our GDP much more than people realise. In India, a large number of women have been shut out from realising their own potential. This needs to be tackled with utmost urgency. Not just the government, but every single industry needs to work on this because the benefits of this are well demonstrated across the world.

Malcolm Johnson, the deputy secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union, recently told me how he was struck by the fact that there was only one woman in the room at an event he attended here. So we have decided that to encourage the participation of women in technology and telecom, we will work on a joint programme for girls and young women in schools and colleges to bring them into this space.

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