It is well established that broadband uptake plays an important role in a countrys ICT growth. Reports suggest that a 10% increase in broadband penetration results in close to a 1.4% increase in a countrys GDP. In fact, in China, every 10% increase in broadband penetration is seen as contributing an additional 2.5% to GDP growth.
Globally, the US, Korea and Japan are leaders in broadband penetration. There are plenty of examples of government initiatives yielding unprecedented growth in broadband South Koreas Korea 21, Australias National Broadband Network, the EUs Digital Agenda, Singapores iN2015 Master Plan etc. For the technically inclined, broadband is defined as a connection that provides a minimum of 256kbps. While the US has recently tried to raise the minimum speed, the rest of the world, including ITU and OECD, still consider 256 kbps as broadband. In fact, this speed is quite adequate for a large majority of users.
The recent draft National Telecom policy (NTP) 2011 plans to achieve 175 million broadband connections by 2017. Considering that the previous broadband policy failed to meet the goals, how can we be sure that this time around the goals are realistically achievable Should we simply depend on 3G for broadband uptake
Why was the broadband uptake slow
The 2004 broadband policy had set a goal of 20 million broadband users in India by 2010, but in reality only half of that was achieved. Why The PSU telcos enjoyed a huge monopoly in the fixed-line segment, with over 80% connections. It is well known that the PSUs have challenges in adding broadband connections by themselves due to their antiquated procedures/policies. Also, due to the lack of regulation on unbundling of local loop (sharing the infrastructure among Internet service providers and competing operators), the ISPs were not able to utilise BSNLs last mile infrastructure. Broadband tariff has not seen reduction akin to the mobile world. It is also observed that Indias fixed-line broadband speeds are far lower compared to the rest of the world, primarily due to lack of maintenance.
Although cable TV has picked up significantly in India, coaxial cable-based broadband did not witness similar uptake due to licensing requirements, quality of infrastructure, and lack of awareness in terms of cost and quality of connection. The lack of awareness among people concerning Internet usage and availability of simple plus meaningful local content acted as a dampener for broadband uptake. Another factor was the inadequate availability of affordable Internet-enabled devices together with high broadband connection costs. So, BSNL enjoyed no competition for two years in 3G deployment and still was not successful in increasing the wireless broadband user base.
Create infrastructure and ecosystem
After the 2010 spectrum auction, 3G and BWA trends indicate that mobile broadband is certain to witness significant addition over the next few years, especially with newer and lower-priced devices like tablets, laptops etc hitting the market. This, coupled with more attractive tariffs, will boost broadband adoption. Any government regulations to improve spectrum efficiency by allowing re-farming and spectrum-sharing among operators will certainly augur well for mobile broadband adoption.
However, due to the limitations of spectrum availability, infrastructure costs and the anticipated demand for huge bandwidth, an alternative long-term broadband solution is needed for India.
The governments plan to create a pan-India, wired broadband infrastructure with USOF-funded National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) is certainly a step in the right direction. NOFN is expected to connect 2,500 village panchayats and would allow all the private operators broadband services to rural areas. India already has 7.5 lakh kilometres fibre laid out by private operators. Globally, there are several examples of optical fibre-based networks being successfully deployed and resulting in a huge uptake in broadband.
Once implemented, NFON will certainly give impetus for e-governance initiatives such as e-health, e-banking and e-education. However, given that a PSU telco has been tasked with implementing NFON, the moot question is whether the NOFN infrastructure will really be ready by 2014
Availability of affordable tablets or PCs will certainly help in rapid broadband adoption. So the governments initiative in launching the subsidised ultra-low-cost tablet device Aakash is a welcome move. The governments plan in supporting semiconductor fabs will enable indigenous hardware development. This, coupled with encouragement for R&D and IPR creation, will provide the impetus for availability of affordable devices. Relevant local content and attractive tariffs are also needed for broadband uptake.
India has seen unprecedented growth in mobile connections with teledensity reaching over 70%, and with rural teledensity growing at an impressive rate from 1.9% in 2005 to over 35% now. In spite of this phenomenal transformation in communication, Indias human development index stands at an appalling 119th rank of 169 countries.
The literacy level in India must be increased as it is well established that literacy translates into growth and economic development. The latest United Nations HDI trends indicate that countries like Russia, Brazil and China are way ahead compared to India in terms of youth literacy. All the three countries are far ahead of India in terms of broadband penetration as well.
Reports suggest that overall India has less than 10% computer literate population and only 32% of people living in cities are computer literate. Another important area for successful adoption of broadband is to improve e-awareness. This would enable users to understand and appreciate the value of technology and help increase the adoption rate. It is equally important to encourage meaningful/productive use of the Internet. The government could deploy USOF and embark on a mission to increase Internet/mobile broadband/computing awareness with an active collaboration amongst various stakeholders such as the government, telcos, learning content providers, universities, schools and local administration.
NTP 2011 aptly recognises the need for Right to Broadband. A strong broadband network can form the backbone of this country and hence the need to treat broadband
as an essential basic service. For enhancing positive network externalities, it is imperative that the government undertakes measures to improve infrastructure, support an indigenous ecosystem, and rapidly increases literacy/e-literacy across the country.
The author is director and delivery head for mobile devices, Teleca software solutions India.
Views are personal