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Towering Telecom

Aruna Sundararajan is setting the agenda for the telecom sector's next phase of growth.

Towering Telecom

Aruna Sundararajan is behind the key decisions that will set the agenda for the telecom sector for years to come.

When Aruna Sundararajan took full charge as the telecom secretary in June last year, the sector was going through a critical phase - consolidation was at its peak, rising competition was hitting the financial health of the sector, and data and voice consumption was going off the charts.

She was instrumental in preparing the new digital communications policy - NDCP 2018 - that now awaits cabinet approval. Sceptics have raised concerns over the government's ambitious target to attract $100 billion investment in the sector by 2022. She explains that even though India is the second-largest market, it's possible that over the next 10 years, it will actually become the largest. "China is investing $70 billion in telecom every year - that's $350 billion in five years. We are saying only $100 billion. It's the kind of investment that you would require if you want 100 per cent of your towers to be fiberised, smart city infrastructure to come up, broadband penetration to reach every citizen, and enable 5G," she says.

Sundararajan, a 1982 batch IAS officer of the Kerala cadre, believes that the current tariff war between the three large operators - Vodafone Idea Ltd, Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio - will continue until 2019 or the first quarter of 2020 after which fundamentals of the market will take over and operators will start focusing on monetisation. "I think that even for Jio, there's a trend towards monetisation. Jio has the same compulsion as others? once they have a respectable [subscriber] share, they will come in line with the rest of the sector. This tariff war will shift to a service war," she says.

Sundararajan has a lot on her plate. She has to improve the quality of services - a persistent problem - and making India a winner in the 5G sweepstakes. "We have to do a lot of work on the quality of services?the way voice and data has grown, our infrastructure growth has not kept pace," she says.

Sundararajan says that the roadmap to develop 5G capabilities in the country is evolving quite well. "The key in the future is going to be how much IPR we can generate. We have the capabilities but most IPRs are residing with foreign companies," she adds.

For a bureaucrat with a career spanning around 36 years, she says the current job has been the most challenging for her.

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