1. Scaling up Digital India

Scaling up Digital India

A major part of the broadband roll-out could have been transferred to the private sector, like was done for mobile telephony, for much better results

By: | Published: December 2, 2015 12:19 AM
The current cost of broadband rural connectivity for subscribers is very high. The issue has to be dealt with and sorted out in the National Broadband Plan, like it was done in 2000 and 2003 for costs and tariffs.

The current cost of broadband rural connectivity for subscribers is very high. The issue has to be dealt with and sorted out in the National Broadband Plan, like it was done in 2000 and 2003 for costs and tariffs.

I had written an article on “tuning the Digital India dream” (FE, November 24; http://goo.gl/jXIKjp), regarding the need to change the current telecom regulation applicable on telephone lines to a different kind of regulation adopted in all fast-growing broadband countries. The fact is that today’s arrangement and practices will not improve the situation. Other steps have to be taken.

The spectrum on the net is grossly inadequate and is even choking telecom calls. It cannot deal with the incremental traffic of broadband—with 3% fixed lines and 97% mobile, mobile broadband dependent on spectrum is India’s only hope for broadband growth. Yet the allocation of spectrum in the country leaves much to be desired. Hence our performance on broadband growth is nothing to talk about despite being called a cellphone nation.

Everyone knows that we need more spectrum per population (the potential users in Digital India programme) to cater to mobile phone and broadband requirement, especially in a country having very few fixed telephone/broadband connections, yet the allocation is dismal (see table). It is tragic that Trai/government blame operators for the near collapse of our mobile networks, when the cause is something else. The assignment the table shows is that against the requirement of 500-600 MHz identified by Trai as per its May 2010 report for India’s voice/data services by 2014, our availability is 120 MHz. About 300 MHz is already available in other countries, despite similar security considerations. Additionally, our spectrum has not been refarmed. The problem has not come to the fore in broadband, as our broadband programme today is only identified with the progress of the National Optical Fibre Network project, trying to connect 2.5 lakh villages most inefficiently. No one seems to realise that this is only a small part of the broadband initiative and would take long for broadband connections.

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Once data is used on telephone, it becomes a spectrum guzzler, and gives more income, hence voice calls suffer (dropped calls, etc), and the need for spectrum increases. The data growth, however, is a welcome development.
The third problem coming in the way of sound broadband growth in India is that it does not have a consolidated broadband plan and roadmap, despite having announced Digital India, and we are in the absolute minority in the world in this regard—most countries have already announced such initiatives. It is well known in the telecom world that no country can move without such a plan. The issue of downstream business can only be settled by the Department of IT issuing a broadband plan and an integrated business plan, assuring village-level traffic. The integrated broadband policy/business plan defines points in villages that will get connected, like schools, medical centres, panchayats, agriculture extension services, rural markets, banks, commercial establishments, private persons, etc, in the prescribed time-frame, and defines the extent of traffic. It is only after such a plan is issued, will private sector mobile companies upgrade their networks to reach villages to connect to subscribers. Surely, making the fibre reach 2.5 lakh villages cannot be the only aim of the broadband plan. The government also has to announce dates by which they would complete the backbone/district/block-level connectivity. The absence of such target dates will not give confidence to mobile players to start investing in upgradation of their networks, leading to mobile broadband subscriber connections in place of announcements.

Digital India requires ubiquitous and high-speed broadband, which can multiply jobs in areas of our core competence, like had happened in the early 1990s in the IT field, by providing India easy and cheap connectivity with the world. In the 2000s, cheap access and rates, technology-agnostic level-playing field and competition led to huge reduction in tariffs and consequently enormous mobile growth. The current cost of broadband rural connectivity to subscribers is very high, and the issue has to be dealt with and sorted out in the National Broadband Plan, like it was done in 2000 and 2003 for costs and tariffs. Unfortunately, it appears that no one is prepared to touch upon these issues, because earlier steps led to many fraudulent enquiries initiated by the political executive in the UPA time. Additionally, the private sector played a major role (almost 90%), whereas the current plan is mostly public sector/government-centric.

I see tariffs as the fourth reason for poor growth. The post-2000 reforms had led mobile tariffs to come down from Rs 32 to Rs 0.5 per minute. This was a precursor to 100 times growth in mobiles, and consequently total recoveries being higher than the earlier high-tariff regime. Today, broadband tariffs are often higher than the total income of some sections of population (Trai report 2015). No “Digital India” programme can run on such tariffs. This way, the targets of 170-600 million (for 2017 and 2010) would not move beyond announcements.

The fifth problem is that the ill-thought-out NOFN of 2011 continues even today, which had zero performance against targets fixed in 2011, and very poor performance against targets fixed in 2014 for broadband growth. One of the main reasons for poor performance is monopoly implementation by the public sector, even when we know that the growth of mobile was achieved through aggressive implementation by private companies, where the government kept them in check courtesy high competition environment enforced by the regulator. The only aim of NOFN seems to be wastage of USO funds. The NOFN plan cannot be an end in itself. We have to achieve target subscriber growth which does not end at the fibre level, and needs forward (to subscriber) and backward connectivity to the national backbone too.

The sixth problem is that no one is trying to connect the existing 35,000 fibre points, mostly dark, to the subscribers—the real aim of any broadband programme (NOFN is only an infrastructure initiative). Once this is done, we will realise that spectrum is not available, and there would be more widespread call drops, increasing our movement towards network collapse. The first target has to be connecting those ends to the subscriber. A major part of this roll-out could have been transferred to the private sector, like was done for mobile telephony, for much better results. It may be recalled that such a scheme has increased rural telephone connectivity to 50%, in comparison to 2% in 2007, which was achieved after 60 years of massive expenditure post-Independence, through NOFN-kind centralised schemes.

The author is retired chairman, Trai, and former consultant, WB and ITU on mobile and broadband

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