Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just concluded his successful US visit, there’s some bad news for technology majors like Microsoft and Google back home. The government is in no mood to allocate them spectrum for their key projects — White Spaces for Microsoft and Loon for Google. Both companies have floated the projects concerned with the avowed aim of connecting rural India with broadband and internet, something that would supplement the government’s initiative of laying down its own national optic fibre network to meet the purpose.
Government sources told FE that there is no way Microsoft will be allocated spectrum in the TV UHF band IV (470-585 MHz), which are called white spaces. Similar is the case with Google’s Loon. If these companies are interested in the spectrum for their projects, they need to acquire the radio waves by participating in the auction for the spectrum in the band concerned, whenever the government puts them up for bidding. For the record, mobile operators have opposed any allocation of spectrum to these firms as they provide mobile telephony and internet services by acquiring spectrum through auctions.
The government’s policy is to grant all natural resources through auctions, so it cannot make an exception in the case Microsoft or Google. Sources said that if Google is interested in a pilot for its Loon whereby it ties up with state-owned BSNL and uses the latter’s spectrum to test the technology, then it is fine. But it would not be granted spectrum separately to carry out its tests.
Both projects have generated immense heat in recent times. For instance, white spaces technology is being propped as a provider of low-cost internet connectivity to villages. White spaces are basically the spaces or gaps between various frequency bands used by television companies for broadcast, and they are there to ensure the signals do not interfere with one another.
If, for example, Doordarshan is broadcasting one channel at 470-478 MHz and Sony is given the 480-488 band, the spectrum block of 478-480 MHz is a white space. Since this spectrum cannot be used, the argument goes, it makes good sense to
allocate it to companies like Microsoft that have special technologies for this area which will help connect millions of people in rural areas to the internet.
However, in practice, there are no white spaces in India. According to a recent IIT Bombay study, more than 80% of the TV UHF band IV (470-585 MHz) is totally free and lying unused. This means what is referred to as white spaces are only free and unused spectrum and does not fall under the definition of white spaces. The answer to the next logical question — to why this unused spectrum is not being used for mobile telephony technology — is that currently the International Telecommunications Union has not recognised this band as a cellular technology band so equipment and handsets compatible with it are not being manufactured.
If the unused spectrum in the band is used by way of unlicensed assignment as is being sought by Microsoft, apart from potential loss of revenue to the government, it will need power regulation, which will reduce its coverage capability, as the unlicensed technologies by regulation have to transmit at much lower power to prevent it from interfering with other users who might be in the vicinity. Therefore, the signals will not travel far enough to be able to connect the villages as being projected by Microsoft.
Similarly, Google’s Loon project uses big balloons floating at an altitude of 20 kilometres for transmission of internet services. The technology, used for 4G services, has the potential to replace mobile towers as it can directly transmit signals on 4G mobile phones. Each balloon can cover a diameter of 40 km on the ground.
The problem here again is that the spectrum that would be used is either 700 MHz or 2500 MHz, and the government is going to auction both to mobile operators, so opponents ask how it can be provided for free to Google. Further, there are security issues too that the home and civil aviation ministries have pointed out.
Microsoft & Google through their projects, White Spaces & Loon aim to provide internet connectivity in rural areas
Govt is also trying to do the same through its NOFN project. Both the projects require spectrum which the duo want assigned. Mobile operators are opposed to any assignment as they are granted the same via auctions