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Umang Das, Vice-Chairman, TAIPA

People , September 19, 2016

There are plenty of veterans in the telecom industry, but how many among them can boast being there when history was made? When was the first call on India’s mobile network made in Kolkata? And who was responsible for that call being made possible in the first place?

 

The distinction goes to Umang Das who personifies his first name Umang, meaning enthusiasm. He has been in the industry for 46 years, being closely involved with its evolution since 1986-87, when telecom was revolutionised in India through the introduction of electronic systems and privatisation process. Umang has also been enthusiastic in pioneering some landmark developments.

He is currently the vice-chairman of the Tower and Infrastructure Provider Association (TAIPA), having begun his career in 1970, after graduating from the Delhi College of Engineering and the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

He reminisces about the early days of what has proved to be a roller-coaster journey. On July 31, 1995, when West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu called central telecom minister Sukh Ram on the mobile network in New Delhi, Umang was there, heaving a sigh of relief that the call was happening. No one knew if it would work out, given the breakneck schedule that Modi Telstra, the company he headed as CEO, had to follow.

At that time, all telecom players were new to the industry. So, it was a landmark call connecting the West Bengal government and the central government, facilitated by Umang.

“The Modi group was known for introducing innovative new technologies in India like Continental’s radial tyres, Xerox copiers, Alcatel’s electronic switching, Olivetti desktops. Thus, we were keen to get the licence for mobile services, which was a sunrise industry. But we were new, so we guessed that it would take us a year to roll out the network. Therefore, we sought nine months and committed July 31, 1995 as the date because Jyoti Basu wanted Kolkata to be the first city with a mobile network. It was a question of prestige. We didn’t even have an equipment partner at the time we gave them the date,” he says.

The bids were only finalised in February 1995. Umang told Nokia to roll out the network in three months. The call is etched in his memory as the first step towards mobile revolution in India.

Umang’s association with the sector goes back to his days in Crompton Greaves Limited (CGL). As the marketing lead for power and electrical systems at CGL during 1970-86, Umang was assigned with the task of setting up the telecom division in view of it being one of the emerging sectors in India. When the revolution began, neither Umang nor anyone in India could have envisaged how mobile phones would revolutionise lives. He recalls how Richard Siemens, the then CEO of Hutchison, was speaking to him one day and said something prophetic. “Forget things like Xerox, it will be left far behind, the mobile phone will leave everything behind,” was what he had said, recalls Umang.

“Now, of course, we have moved far beyond voice and into data services and video. I don’t call the phone a phone. I call it a digital device because voice has become one of the many services that are being offered. Most of us are WhatsApping and texting. We are now in the next phase of integrated lifestyle changes,” he says.

At Modi, which owned the Spice brand, he was responsible for ushering in a more competitive framework for the industry by bringing in Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei in 2004-05. Meanwhile, big changes were being rolled out in telecom infrastructure. In a nutshell, Umang launched a new industry – the independent telecom tower infrastructure sharing industry. “We brought in independent players who built infrastructure that could be shared by multiple operators,” he says.

It was as managing director of the Spice Group that he spearheaded the total telecom infrastructure enablement for mobile operators, which would cut costs and improve the productivity and profitability of operators.

Instead of individual operators setting up their own towers and spending as much as 70 per cent of their investment on them, the new industry, spearheaded by the SREI Quippo Group, began building towers at a much lower cost that everyone could share. “This led to an interesting juxtaposition – a telecom industry that was cooperating closely at the back end for infrastructure, but competing ferociously in the marketplace for acquiring customers,” he says. The first 50 towers have now grown to over 450,000 towers.

In 2008, a new phase opened up when the government told operators that they could share not only the passive aspects of infrastructure, i.e. towers, but also the active elements of the network. Umang was then managing director and CEO of SREI Infocomm Services, which offered both the active and passive total solutions for the network.

Later, the SREI group merged with Tata’s tower business to become Viom Networks and in 2009-10, achieved a world record of rolling out 15,500 towers in one year. “This is a unique India model of sharing towers that has been progressively adopted in parts of Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe,” he says. As chief mentor at Viom Networks, Umang was also spearheading the company’s international ventures and forays into managed services, and was additionally appointed as director with Viom International at both Singapore and Myanmar.

Viom was the largest independently managed infrastructure provider with the highest number of tenants. But in April 2015, ATC acquired Viom to create India’s largest telecom tower infrastructure sharing company, ATC India.

At ATC, he leads regulatory affairs and related industry initiatives.

At TAIPA, being one of the founding fathers and the current vice-chairman, his focus is on three main issues. First, facilitating policies conducive to operators migrating from voice-based tower networks to data broadband networks. Two, ensuring uniformity of policy across the country as they currently vary from state to state. Third, bringing in technology-led and renewable energy solutions to reduce pollution.

In areas where diesel generators are used, the switch to energy efficient storage batteries is happening and TAIPA is actively accelerating this. Thirty per cent of towers are already diesel free. The good thing, Umang says, is that solar is becoming less expensive and therefore more viable. “Now that solar is becoming cheaper, we have to establish viable large power generating stations through independent renewable energy service companies that can serve the tower companies as well as the community. Instead of setting them up on a site-by-site basis at each tower, we are looking to set up large centralised plants that can cater to a large number of towers. This also means we need incentivised policies so that renewable energy companies come and feed into the grid. In fact, the tower companies will then become anchor companies in the same way as the operators are anchors to the tower companies,” he says.

As one of the most experienced people in the industry, Umang feels his biggest role is that of thought leadership in guiding the objectives mentioned earlier.  Much of his work involves advocacy and alignment among the different stakeholders and facilitating policies for enabling the Digital India goal.

Apart from his industry work, Umang is involved in promoting digital literacy as district director, Rotary International. “We realised that we’ve got water, shelter, electricity and security at the tower sites. In villages, these sites are like an oasis in the desert. So we have started using them as digital learning centres in partnership with NIIT.

ATC is also very actively involved in building digital smart villages and learning centres. “Unless people are skilled for the digital world, we will have a mismatch because the digital world is moving fast,” he says.

Umang is also director at other companies such as UR Consultants and Impex Private Limited, Spice Digital Limited, Spice Retail Limited and Spice Mobility Limited. He is currently chairman of CII’s telecom infrastructure committee within the national broadband committee. He is chairman of the e-governance and digital society, National Committee of ASSOCHAM and chairman of the CSC Forum. In addition, he is an active member of the managing committees of CII, FICCI and ASSOCHAM.

Umang’s family consists of his wife Ritu, who is actively involved in the welfare and education of the girl child and is trustee on the board of Sri Digamber Jain Mahila Ashram, and a secondary school in Daryaganj for 1,100 under-privileged children. In addition, she is associated with several NGOs and charity organisations. His son Varun keeps him stimulated with discussions on artificial intelligence, robotics and the electric vehicles he is working on.

Umang is so busy that it is a wonder he fits everything into 24 hours. He says the secret to being happy and fulfilled is to have many interests because if one stalls or does not do well, the other activities will keep us going.

As he gets older, he feels that public service is important. “To contribute to someone less privileged and see them smile is a huge pleasure. Material gains are fine but beyond a point, they don’t make sense.” Umang agrees with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comment that if you have the passion for something, there is no dearth of energy.

 
 

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