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Affordable spectrum will help telecom operators invest in building networks that are crucial for India’s digital infrastructure, Bharti Airtel Ltd CEO Gopal Vittal said, repeating his stand that the country’s airwaves are prohibitively expensive.

“One of the most critical enablers for Digital India is improved access to infrastructure… affordable spectrum, so that we can invest in building networks rather than spend money on just airwaves," Vittal said on Thursday at the Global R&D Summit 2020 organized by industry body Ficci.

Previously also, Airtel—which is India’s second-largest telco by market share—as well as Vodafone Idea Ltd have criticized the reserve price for the next spectrum auction.

Vittal, in an analysts’ call, said the fundamental issue with 5G is the cost of spectrum, which “is way over the top for any kind of business model to work". “We have always maintained that the indicative reserve price on the spectrum of 5G, the 3.5 GHz band, is very, very expensive, and we will not be able to afford it at those levels," he said.

The department of telecommunications (DoT) plans to auction 8,300MHz of spectrum at a base price of 5.23 trillion. The next auction will be critical for Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd as a major chunk of its airwaves in the 800MHz band will expire in 2021.

“We have heard from the department (DoT) that they want to do an auction probably sometime in January-March," a top Airtel official told Mint on condition of anonymity, adding that, “As far as we are concerned, we have got pretty good spectrum holding, so we don’t need much spectrum."

Spectrum in the 800MHz band is seen as the most efficient and is used for 4G services. Reliance Jio provides only 4G services.

On Thursday, Vittal also said that telcos and infrastructure companies will require affordable and easy access to Right of Way (RoW) rules to lay fibre cables when needed.

To ease the development of telecom infrastructure across the country, the Centre had in 2016 come out with the RoW policy, a framework to set up telecom towers, lay fibre cables, settle disputes in a time-bound manner and to improve coordination among private firms, states and local bodies.

However, only 18 states and UTs have implemented the RoW policy so far, while the remaining continue to levy hefty fees, which in some areas runs into crores, for setting up towers and laying fibre cables.

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