Making broadband affordable for all

Feb 02 2013, 02:25 IST
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Summary“Wireless communication is plagued by a shortage of space for new services. As the new regions of the radio spectrum have been opened to practical operation, commerce and industry have found more than enough uses to crowd them.”

Broadband provided through licensed spectrum is unaffordable for 61% of the world’s population, and much more in India. More efficient use of unlicensed spectrum, coupled with other innovations being explored abroad, will go a long way in making broadband internet cheaper

“Wireless communication is plagued by a shortage of space for new services. As the new regions of the radio spectrum have been opened to practical operation, commerce and industry have found more than enough uses to crowd them.”

Uniquely, India has more than 96% wireless connections and only less than 4% fixed telephone lines. We have the second-largest number of mobile phones in the world, operating on scarce licensed spectrum. We also have around the highest number of TV channels, and also cabled, DTH and normal terrestrial TVs. We are now aspiring to become the largest broadband country, which will predominately need to work on scarce spectrum. The problem is further complicated by the spectrum being inefficiently distributed to a large number of operators. The story does not end here.

We sit in a region with external and internal terrorism, thus necessitating huge amounts of spectrum to be allotted to security forces, who also have inefficient and outdated equipment, guzzling spectrum. Anyone would think that the statement at the start of this piece was written for Indian spectrum management today. Surprisingly, the statement was made in a report of the 1952 United States Joint Technical Advisory Committee. The spectrum shortage was felt when colour TVs were launched in the US; the service became very popular and a spectrum guzzler. Even in the US, mobile telephony came 30-35 years later. The US and many other developed countries have been working on ways of efficient spectrum management since then.

We did not have serious problems on this count, though. We launched the colour TV 30 years after the US did, in 1982, at the advent of Asian Games. The minister of Information and Broadcasting, Vasant Sathe staked his political career for this launch, much against the wishes of Bollywood, which thought films would then become unpopular. It is another matter that Bollywood has been the biggest gainer from this bold step. We also launched mobile phones 30 years after it was launched in advanced countries. Till then, it was thought inappropriate technology, like colour TVs, for the poor Indian. Later, after a couple of regulatory initiatives, mobiles became cheaper than fixed telephones. Today, both mobiles and TVs have reached the poorest, without government subsidies.

When the internet was designed, we only thought of fixed lines for transmission and believed content consisted of only surfing and mail. Today, the internet runs spectrum-guzzlers like movies, video clips, Web 2.0 services like Facebook, Twitter, etc, and more innovative value added services are being added everyday. All this is creating a crisis of spectrum availability, and nations are being forced to look for enabling changes in spectrum management policies, technology, regulation and law. Each country is working on various aspects of spectrum usage efficiency, but our problem is massive on account of the huge wireless/fixed line mismatch and rising aspirations. We need to work intensively towards solutions to increase spectrum efficiency. Much has been written on converged and unified licensing and next generation networks as regulatory solutions to aid better spectrum and network efficiencies. However, we would like to examine the emerging methodologies and spectrum allocation policies for better spectral efficiency.

Historically, spectrum is allotted in one of the three ways:

* Licensed for exclusive usage rights to operators—the current usual practice. This practice can no longer meet the increasing requirements of present operators due to the ever-increasing number of subscribers, increase of operators and increase in the number of bandwidth-guzzling value-added services. The auction of scarce spectrum is also leading to a 'winners curse', and also very high prices leading to an increase in tariffs, making the services out of reach of poor consumers.

* License-exempt or unlicensed spectrum—that low-power devices (cordless phones, Wifi devices, etc) which meet certain technical conditions, can share the spectrum. Countries are working on expanding this list for spectral efficiency and higher dispersal.

* Authorised shared access—a complementary way of authorising spectrum access and usage, based on individual authorisations with conditions that ensure quality and payment for use. The scheme can be kick-started by additional allocation of federal spectrum after a vacation process, which requires time and payments to the users for vacation. Europe, UK and the US are currently examining this process. The advantage is a huge increase in utilisation efficiency of scarce resource.

If the concept of broadband access delivered through home wi-fi can be extended geographically and for more services, this spectrum can be an instrument for far greater dispersal to the poor for services like broadband and more. In addition, the unlicensed spectrum has potential to be used for many utility and citizen services like data telemetry, meteorology, road safety, e-health, personal locators, smart grids, anti-theft devices, etc. In many developed nations, the wonders of unlicenced spectrum have been exploited to a great extent by unlicencing large chunks of this resource in many bands like 2.4G, 5.7G and 5.1G, in addition to few more. In India, a small beginning was made by unlicencing 2.4G and a small chunk of 5.7G for outdoor usage, but a lot is required to be done to exploit its full potential.

The experience of rural telephony in India has taught us that there was no growth for decades despite huge investments made by the government through USO subsidies. Only the launch of cheap mobiles in rural areas increased the rate of growth by more than a hundred times. Of course, the government would earn due to huge increase in GDP and its impact on tax revenues, a natural consequence of broadband increase in rural areas and for the poor. A number of studies on 3G rates have shown that this can never lead to widespread dispersal of broadband to the poor, and subsidy schemes will only lead to undesirable consequences, as in the case of rural telephones.

To ensure that the benefits of free unlicensed spectrum are realised, policymakers and regulators will have to identify spectrum for such usage based on the international best practices and experiences, which can improve drastically the applications of various technologies in license-exempt bands. Mobile operators today are also requiring huge amounts of additional spectrum. Fulfilling these demands through conventional ways will make the services much more expensive, and result in concentration in the hands of few operators, compromising competition. As a balanced approach, particularly for widespread expansion of broadband services and for a number of other emerging and desirable value added services, policymakers will have to look for more spectrum spaces for license-exempt usage and authorised fixed-price sharing through dynamic access to pooled spectrum slots.

As per studies conducted, broadband provided through licensed spectrum is at present unaffordable for 61% of the world’s population, and naturally for a much higher percentage in India. Since it is important that broadband reaches the masses, innovative allocation methodologies suggested above for additional incremental spectrum will have to be considered and implemented. Only then will we be able to serve them with much needed value-added services and applications for their lifestyles, resulting in overall societal welfare.

The author is former disinvestment secretary, power, and chairman, Trai. He can be contacted at baijalp@gmail.com

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