India: industry adapts to pandemic challenges

30 Mar 2020

The Indian government, telecom industry stakeholders and regulatory authorities have proposed a series of measures to adapt to new challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, although communication and cooperation between agencies remains somewhat strained. Following a request from sector lobby group the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) for the allocation of additional spectrum to wireless providers to ensure continued connectivity and service quality, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has directed companies to submit details of their requirements to the DoT’s spectrum arm the Wireless Planning Commission (WPC), the Economic Times writes. According to unnamed industry sources, the DoT has asked operators to provide details of their requirements for access and backhaul spectrum on a circle-by-circle basis. The regulator has yet to confirm whether additional frequencies would be made available or on what terms such permissions would be awarded, however. Operators had asked for the additional spectrum to guarantee that their systems could cope with the strain of the surging demand as India went into lockdown from 24 March, requiring many of the country’s workers to telecommute and work remotely; in some cases providers said they had seen data use double since the lockdown order.

Similarly, the COAI and fellow industry group the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association (TAIPA) have sought permission from local authorities to use mobile towers that had been sealed prior to the outbreak. The DoT has asked senior state and Union Territory authorities to designate officers to ensure the maintenance of telecom infrastructure for the duration of the lockdown.

Measures introduced by The Reserve Bank of India (RBI), meanwhile, have given the nation’s cash-strapped telcos some relief, most notably by implementing a three-month moratorium on certain loan repayments and cutting interest rates for new borrowing. A spokesperson for the COAI said that the pause would help cellcos maintain cash flow and dismissed fears of a potential tariff hike saying that operators would keep tariffs stable for now.

Elsewhere, Indian lawmakers have asked telcos to waive call charges for migrant workers for a month as ‘hundreds of thousands’ attempt to leave cities and return home by foot or by bus after long-haul train services were closed down last week. Major cities are seeing an ‘exodus’ of day labourers and other workers that have been left without an income as a result of the shutdown of non-essential services. COAI head Rajan Matthews was quoted as saying: ‘No business can hope to succeed without this focus on the interest of their customers first … I am sure they will consider the request carefully and work with the government to take appropriate action.’ In a similar move, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has asked operators to extend the validity of pre-paid services, as users may struggle to extend their plan or get top-ups during the shut down.