Celebrating 25 years of India’s Mobility Revolution


As a country, India is completing 25 years of driving mobility for its huge population of well over 1 billion people. Over the past many years, networks, devices and technologies have changed but the idea of mobility has enabled innovation and given innumerable opportunities for citizens.

Rajan S Mathews, Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) speaks with Zia Askari, Editor, TelecomDrive.com about some of the biggest achievements of this revolution and how is India’s telecom industry going to move ahead and embrace new technologies and deliver future-proof innovations.

We are now completing 25 years of mobility in India. I want to take some of your thoughts on this? What are some of the big achievements that we have and how do you look at the future?

First of all in the last 25 years, what we’ve seen is nothing short of a revolution and what that means is that we went from a landline oriented country which had less than 7% penetration today to being a country where, just about every citizen can demand a mobile phone and get basic telephony service.

70% to 80% of the population can have access to broadband services and the internet that is a tremendous revolution which is allowing our population and our citizens to have not only telephony communication, but data communication, and access to application ecosystems. I think that is one of the most fundamental achievements in the last 25 years. The second larger achievement in the 25 years is the scope and scale of the spread of our networks.

All the way from Kashmir to Kanyakumari – the scope and the coverage, availability of our mobile network is just about fantastic. So, that is the other part of the revelation & the third part comes from the fact that today, we have been able to also penetrate the rural market place and the rural areas, almost 50% or 60% of all of our villages, our rural areas are covered by telephony. This brings all of the opportunities for connectivity to the internet, for communication services.

It has been one of the prime movers to improve or enhance and lift people out of poverty. And two, it has brought in the female component of our population and has empowered the woman to begin to participate in our culture and in our business and economy. So these are some of the significant issues and if you look at the investments that have been made today, the mobile industry is the largest – attractive segment for foreign direct investment.

So when you look at all of those parameters, you can see why we say that it has been truly a revolution in the last 25 years.

And, how do you look at the way forward? What more can be done and what are some of the opportunities that are opening up now?

One of the things that we have done, and obviously, with the participation of the government very earlier on, the government decided that we were going to go with what was called 2G. And because we made the decision to go with 2G from the very beginning, our networks were all digitized. So, we were able to ride the whole phenomenon that we call convergence.

That means anything that can be digitized can in effect travel over our networks. Right, so that is why increasingly you’ll find more and more businesses can use our networks for conducting their essential business. 2G obviously has gone through the 3G and 4G, we are in the height of 4G and very soon we will be looking to start introducing 5G.

The technological growth is what we are looking forward to, because of digitalization, more & more businesses and more & more economic activity will be conducted over our networks and as we move to 5G, increasingly larger sections of industry will be brought online because 5G facilitates what we call, Industry 4.O. Industry 4.O means that mobile applications and solutions will increasingly be used in industry.

For example, things like robotics, logistics, will increasingly benefit from the presence of our network. Secondly, what we are going to see great opportunity for the Internet of Things or IoT. The global population today is expected to be somewhere around 6 billion people. So at the most you can get 6 billion connections today, because of the Internet of Things, we are expecting that just IoT itself will provide another 6 to 7 billion connections.

And IoT obviously brings in lot more opportunities, things like drones, automated vehicles, autonomous vehicles, remote surgeries, waste management opportunities, remote education facilities, you know all of these become feasible because – not only are we moving to advanced technologies like 5G, but also because we can deal with the requirements of the IoT.

For example, if you are doing remote surgery, our present 4G networks can’t support that because you need high speed and low latency network and that can only be provided by 5G. So that is a point where we are looking forward to embracing 5G. So the citizens very soon will be able to benefit from this.

No matter where you are, wherever you’re living, you will have the best services from medicine from education and that is seen today in the form of Work From Home, you can still teach your children right, and you can still conduct business, you can pay for things you can have things delivered & all of those things are feasible because of our networks.

We are looking forward to the technological explosion that is going to come through the introduction of 5G.

Moving forward, what all technologies do you think are really going to be very important for operators to sustain in a situation like this?

Very clearly we need increasingly to move from 4G to 5G. We have to adopt the Internet of Things.  We have to accelerate our adoption for cloud computing technologies, we have to adopt artificial intelligence. So, robotics will increasingly become important for manufacturing. Drones will increasingly become important for logistics.

So, these are all examples of technologies that we will have to adopt. Autonomous vehicles will increasingly become important to deal with the increasing levels of pollution. And smart traffic management will become increasingly important in managing traffic congestion and pollution. So these are all the technologies that will be introduced as a result of advanced 4G, 5G, IoT, cloud computing, edge computing all these technologies will be there to enable & enhance citizens to enjoy the services they want and all and enterprise to do the types of business they want. So these are clearly the technologies that we are looking for in the future. And in order to achieve all this, operators will need massive amounts of investments in our network.

What according to you are some of the big challenges that you see for India’s telecom industry? I’m sure AGR would be one of them.

Three things will be important in this context. One is the financial health of the industry and how do we improve on that? We have to redefine AGR going forward. That’s one. Secondly, we have to review license fee & spectrum usage charges – today the combination of all of that takes 30% off the top of every Rupee that operators earn. No other industry has this problem. You know, when you go and buy a car, it’s not the 30% of every Rupees that goes to the dealer that goes back to the government. So our industry does have that problem. So that has impacted the financial health because  too much debt and too much taxes and levies up to 30% going back to the government that has to be paid.

Financial health has to be fixed.  Part of the problem, is the taxes and levies and also GST. GST today is at 18%. And GST is being imposed on things that were never intended to be taxed. For example, when we take a loan from the government to pay for our sector, it goes into billions of dollars. Every time I repay that loan, the government is saying, oh, but you also have to now pay 18% from that.

So, this is an example of the government extracting resources from the industry. Second thing that we have to address is the extremely high pricing of spectrum. Spectrum is like what cement and iron is for the construction industry if you don’t have iron & cement the construction industry is not going to move at all.

And when we continue to keep the prices of that essential commodity high then it becomes very difficult for us to roll out affordable services to the consumer. So, in those areas spectrum has to be looked at both in terms of the costs, as well as the availability of it.

The third thing is what I call ‘Right of Way’. Today, increasingly, I am facing a lot of problems from local municipalities and state government in terms of getting permissions to put up the cell towers and roll up the fiber and because of those delays, and also the costs being imposed on us by the local municipality, again, right of way is becoming an increasing problem. And if you don’t have new cell towers coming up, if you can’t hybridize the network, you will never get the speed and you will never get the coverage and the capacity that you need.

When it comes to ‘Make in India’ – where do you think we are today and what more can be done? I mean today if you look at networks, almost everything is coming from Nokia, Ericsson or Huawei. So where does India stand there?

First of all, no country in the world produces 100% of all of its needs, even China if you look at just equipment, in terms of telephony and telecom networks, only 45% to 50% is from indigenous sources and the rest of 50% comes from outside. Even a country like China with all of its focus on manufacturing, everything out there big focus is also on exports. Why is that? Because you can never get the scope and scale if you just rely on the domestic markets, even a country as large as China realizes that – if you really want to get the scale of the demand of the units right, you have to go after the global market.

So, when you ‘Make in India’ you have to make not only for India, but for the world. So the first thing is that you have to do, is to be globally competitive. We get to be globally competitive, that means you have to be globally integrated into the global economy. And you can’t say, Oh, you know, we won’t, because you cannot put very high tariff, because other countries will do it and then you have to just rely on your domestic demand, which is not really going to get you to the scale that you need.

And that’s why research and development becomes extremely important. It is quite unfortunate that we as a country have not highlighted the importance of investment in research and development.

We have not developed IPR or intellectual property. As we move to a knowledge economy, more and more of our products, the value of our product is not going to be in the plastic and the glass in the steel, it is all going to be in the value of the IPR. Today, every box that I import or I put into my network, only 20% of it is truly as a result of local manufacturing, 80% of it comes from the result of the value of the software that is embedded inside it.

So therefore, that is why companies like Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia have basically been able to capture the global market at the scale they have, because they have invested heavily over the years in research and development. They have invested in developing IPR and being able to earn royalties out of that, whereas the Indian companies, on the other hand, have not done the same. Today, companies like Ericsson or Nokia invest 20% of its revenue in R&D. Tell me one company in India that does that?

So, I’m saying if you want to do ‘Make in India’, especially the telecom network where it’s all high tech and high knowledge based capabilities – we have to focus on these two areas right to be able to enhance our productive capacity and succeed in our ‘Make in India’ efforts.

There are a lot of people globally as well as in India, who are working from home. What is your suggestion to people who are feeling a little dejected? How can they re-skill themselves? How can they look at, little bit of training to move up?

One thing that we have to realize is that computing is going to be the basis of all industries. So you have to get a basic understanding of how computer systems work, how applications work and then you’ve got to develop a skill set in some area of computing, it could be in application, it could be in, administration. It could be in network, it could be in maintenance and support.

Secondly, increasingly, if you’re going to move to the higher end of the wage scale, you have to learn two or three critical areas that are going to become important, one is artificial intelligence. You have to know how to develop software and utilize artificial intelligence software and interact with it. So that is one area. The second important area is security. Increasingly, more and more people are going to be very concerned about security around your children utilization of software and systems. You don’t want them to be exposed, again, to the wrong things when they’re playing games, so the security of the application, the security of your network and the security of your systems becomes very important.

So people need to get trained in the area, computing in the area of security and management of security. And so these are areas which are going to be in high demand and we have to encourage our people depending upon the educational background, to continue to move towards computing.

The interview was first published inside TelecomDrive.com latest issue of Disruptive Telecoms