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In the Spotlight: Northeast region gains government attention

November 27, 2014
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A comparative analysis of villages in the north-eastern region (NER) vis-à-vis other states in the country shows that a large number of villages in the area still do not have 2G connectivity. As per the estimates of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Arunachal Pradesh has the highest number of villages without 2G connectivity. About 55.9 per cent of the villages in the state continue to lack basic telecom services. The situation is no better in the neighbouring states. In Meghalaya, 38.1 per cent of the total villages are yet to get access to a 2G network. In Mizoram and Manipur, this figure stands at 32.3 per cent and 24.3 per cent respectively.

To address this issue, the union cabinet recently approved funding of Rs 53.36 billion for a comprehensive telecom development plan for the NER. The project aims to improve telecom infrastructure and connectivity in the region, which comprises the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. The project will be financed through the Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund.

Current status

The key reason for the lack of telecom coverage in the NER is the high capex and opex requirement for establishing telecom infrastructure in the region. The NER states have a tough terrain and are prone to left-wing extremism, which increases the cost of rolling out infrastructure, maintenance and right-of-way permissions. The operating costs of base transceiver stations (BTSs) also increases because of inadequate power availability, which increases diesel consumption at tower sites. These issues lead to low rates of returns on investments and high operating expenses. These obstacles have discouraged operators from setting up telecom infrastructure in the remote areas of the NER.

To overcome these challenges, the USO Fund has been providing subsidies for many projects in the NER. These cover transmission media networks, shared passive BTS roll-outs in uncovered parts of the region, roll out of direct exchange lines and provision of access equipment. Currently, optic fibre cable and transmission networks are being rolled out in the Northeast and Assam circle by RailTel and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, covering district to subdistrict connectivity. The National Optical Fibre Network project, also financed through the USO Fund, covers subdistrict to gram panchayat broadband connectivity.

To improve the telecom infrastructure further in the NER, TRAI issued recommendations in September 2013, following the Department of Telecommunications’ directive to carry out a gap analysis and prepare an investment plan for providing quality telecom services in the north-eastern states. The intention was to formulate a comprehensive telecom plan to revamp and augment telecom services in the NER. Following this, the USO Fund administration appointed Telecommunications Consultants India Limited (TCIL) to prepare a detailed project report (DPR) in accordance with TRAI’s recommendations for 2G network infrastructure in the north-eastern states including Sikkim. As per TCIL’s estimates, 8,621 villages in the NER have not been covered, while 1,272 km of national highway length does not have 2G connectivity. Given the present condition of telecom infrastructure in the NER, TCIL carried out an analysis for the estimation of mobile infrastructure deployment along with its associated capex. The company has estimated that a total of 6,934 BTSs are required to provide telecom connectivity to these areas. The union cabinet has now approved these projects under the USO Fund and activities under these projects are expected to be expedited.

The following are details of TCIL’s DPR for the comprehensive telecom development plan for the NER…

Project specifications

•             Power: Use of renewable energy technology has been mandated at all locations. Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems provide quality power output of 48 volt DC, which directly charges the storage battery or provides direct power to telecom tower sites. Therefore, BTSs will be powered through battery and the battery will be charged using a combination of solar and diesel generator (DG) sets, solar being the first preference. The use of Tubular GEL VRLA batteries has been recommended as they have a slow rate of discharge and provide better performance even under a state of partial charge. This battery performance ideally suits rural applications. The use of lithium-ion batteries has also been recommended on account of their durability and smaller carbon footprint.

•             Infrastructure: Towers of different specifications have been suggested for extending coverage to uncovered villages and along national highways. For the uncovered villages, heavyweight, narrow and wide ground-based towers should be considered with a length of 20 metres, 30 metres or 40 metres. For deployment along national highways, narrow ground-based towers of 30 metres height and angular wide-based towers of 40 metre height should be considered. Angular towers can address issues such as multiple service providers sharing common infrastructure.

In most of the cases, the effective tower heights depends on the altitude of the tower construction site with respect to the target area to be covered. For the NER region, towers are recommended to withstand a minimum wind speed of 180 km per hour. The tower designs are to be approved by organisations such as the Structural Engineering Research Centre and Telecommunication Engineering Centres for ensuring structural fitness, safety, load-bearing capacity and ability to withstand wind speed.

•             System configuration: A system suitable for deployment in the NER should comprise a centralised power plant, battery bank, solar PV and diesel generator set. All these are centrally controlled by a charge control unit (CCU) for optimal power utilisation of systems and charging of the battery bank. The CCU ensures smooth functioning of the overall powering arrangement without any manual intervention. Further, to ensure optimal energy transfer from the solar PV system, the maximum power point tracking technique is recommended. For design purposes, the depth of discharge of a battery is taken as 80 per cent of its capacity and the DG set is considered to trigger only when the battery is discharged below 40 per cent of its capacity. Such a combination results in the optimum use of diesel and therefore in cost reduction, along with lower levels of pollution.

Estimated capex and recommendations

The capital expenditure required to build 2G infrastructure in the NER is calculated on the basis of components required for setting up the BTS site, which includes evaluated BTS equipment, tower and antenna, power infrastructure to support the BTS covering solar panels, batteries as well as DG supply, and backhaul equipment along with other accessories.

The NER has a total highway length of 8,480 km, of which 1,272 km (15 per cent) is not covered for mobile communication. Based on the study conducted by TCIL, 261 BTSs have been found suitable to cover the area at a total cost of Rs 1.71 billion. Further, 6,673 BTSs are required to cover 8,621 uncovered villages of the NER. The capex comes to Rs 36.9 billion with an average site cost of Rs 5.53 million.

In addition to the capex, huge recurring investments are required for maintenance. TCIL has suggested that the capex required for BTS deployment in uncovered villages and highways could be financed through the USO Fund. This funding will encourage operators to establish infrastructure in the NER. Further, the high opex associated with the region should be  considered while calculating the subsidy. On an average, opex per year is taken as 20 per cent of the capex. Such costs include annual management charges, manpower, drive tests and optimisation, regular site maintenance, and diesel costs.

TCIL also mentions that under the USO Fund schemes, passive sharing of towers was mandated earlier. However, under the current guidelines, active sharing of the radio access network (RAN) is also allowed. The main advantage of this technology is the reduction in capex and opex as both the active and passive components are shared by operators. TCIL recommends that while calculating the subsidy, this technology should be considered and active sharing of RAN should be mandated.

These recommendations, if implemented, will provide a huge impetus to operators to set up telecom infrastructure in the north-eastern states. This will, in turn, help achieve 2G connectivity throughout the region and provide much-needed network support to the rural population in the NER.

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