Realising India's broadband dream

Written by V Sridhar | G Krishna Kumar | Updated: Sep 25 2013, 03:55am hrs
As per the 2013 edition of the State of Broadband report released recently, there are now more than 70 countries where over 50% of the population is online. The report emphasises that broadband internet has become a key tool for social and economic development, and points out an important caveat that 90% of the people in the worlds 49 least developed countries remain totally unconnected.

The Indian government set itself a target of 160 million broadband users by the year 2017 and 600 million by 2020. A quick look at the recent performance indicators published by Trai indicates the following: wire-line broadband subscription stands at a paltry 15 million with a maximum in Maharashtra at about 2.5 million; of these 15 million, 85% are provided through the digital subscriber loop (DSL) technology deployed by the fixed line service providers; wireless internet subscriptions has reached an astonishingly high number of 143 million with a maximum of about 14 million in UP. What is interesting is that while the top 10 states in wire-line broadband subscription accounted for about 80% of the total wire-line broadband in the country, the same set accounts for only 65% of mobile internet subscriptions. The above statistics indicate that mobile internet access is a possible substitute for wire-line broadband service. Going by the existing definition of 256 Kbps downlink speed, most of the mobile internet subscribers that use 3G services might qualify to be broadband subscribers. So, we seem to have almost reached the target set for next year, now itself!

What is the problem then

Though NTP 2012 has a clause for the grand revision of the definition of broadband from 256 Kbps to 512 Kbps to 2 Mbps by 2015 and thereafter to 100 Mbps, the mobile internet access still crawls. Though Trai is yet to come up with detailed metrics for measurement of quality of service for data and internet services over mobile, the response time and call disconnects do not make it worth browsing content-heavy websites on our mobilesunless of course we do not have a wire-line broadband service at home, which seems to be the case especially for those who live in suburban areas and less dense locations.

On the other hand, countries are marching ahead with improving broadband penetration levels, which research indicates has a positive correlation with economic development. While most of the European countries have mandated 100 Mbps broadband connections to homes, companies such as Google are experimenting with providing fibre-to-home with a speed of 1 Gbps in the US!

Amongst the OECD countries, Japan and Korea lead the pack with over 60% of the wire-line broadband deployed over optic fibre cables. However, despite opening up basic telecom services with no cap on the number of operators, the wire-line connectivity has not picked up in our country.

Is there any solution in sight

Options for improving broadband penetration

First is the unbundling of the local loop by the incumbents about which Trai released its recommendations way back in April 2004 that will allow internet service providers and cable companies to lease the last mile/bandwidth of the incumbents to provide broadband access. Though unbundling has been touted as unsuccessful until recently, the regulators are using this policy to improve competition in an otherwise natural monopolistic market. Between 2005 and 2013, the number of unbundled lines in the UK has multiplied 70 times to about 9 million copper lines offering more than 24 Mbps. The competition in wire-line broadband has significantly increased leading to drop in prices by about 50% during this period.

With more than 90% of the 35-million-odd fixed lines being owned by the government operators (BSNL and MTNL), it is time that the government mandates unbundling to unlock value of these assets much like the above example to improve broadband penetration in the country.

Second, given the fragmented and minimal spectrum allocations to mobile operators, we can only dream of good broadband connectivity on our mobiles. Hence, release of more spectrum suitable for 3G and higher technologies is warranted. The recent policy reforms including making spectrum technology and service neutral is a welcome step encouraging the mobile operators to deploy wireless broadband technologies. However, the excessive fragmentation of spectrum and non-contiguous allocation prevents efficient implementation of broadband technologies and services. The average spectrum holding across bands per operator per service area in India stands at a paltry 210 MHz that is too little for effective broadband deployment with adequate quality of service. The government would do well by releasing more spectrum especially in the globally harmonised band of 2.1 GHz for 3G-based broadband services and assign contiguous spectrum for the refarmed 900 MHz spectrum in the upcoming auction.

Third is the innovative use of 4G spectrum and associated technologies such as long term evolution (LTE) by the operators. One option is to provide services similar to MiFi being offered by the operators in the UK and the US, where wireless long haul is provided typically through 4G-LTE network connection instead of the DSL landline. Thus, the MiFi routers are portable and flexible and can connect multiple Wi-Fi enabled devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops. When enabled in public transport such as buses and trains, such MiFi routers provide the occupants with local Wi-Fi access, connecting them through the wireless backhaul to the internet. Applications such as the above require low frequency, better propagation spectrum in the 700 MHz range. This spectrum needs to be refarmed from the existing broadcast entities such as Doordarshan for mobile services as soon as possible as per Trai 2012 recommendations, so that quality broadband becomes a reality in our country.

To sum up, although the current uptake in mobile internet usage is encouraging, we need a much stronger push in both wire-line and wireless services as described above for India to realise its broadband dream.

V Sridhar is research fellow at Sasken Communication Technologies. G Krishna Kumar is vice-president at Symphony Teleca. Views are personal