It is unfortunate that the government postponed taking a decision on using—allocating or delicensing—the E & V spectrum bands due to the argument made by some that, if the spectrum is not auctioned, this would be a much bigger scam than even the UPA’s 2G scam. While the UPA scam was estimated at Rs 57,666-1,76,000 crore by the CAG, the E & V bands’ potential ‘scam’ is said to be around Rs 12 lakh crore! Given this is an election year, and the government wouldn’t want another suit-boot-ki-sarkaar tag sticking to it, it will most likely ask the Attorney General for his view and even, perhaps, make a reference to the Supreme Court on whether auctions are essential.
While that may be the safe thing, the fact that the government is worried suggests it hasn’t quite understood what this spectrum does and that the Supreme Court’s argument about auctioning only applied to ‘access’ spectrum—SC didn’t use the term ‘access’ but it is clear this is what it meant. Any delay, meanwhile, will continue to slow the pace of access to a really fast internet, whether on the mobile or through wifi at home or the office.
Any discussion on auctioning spectrum, needless to say, has to be related to what the spectrum is used for. The 2G/3G/4G spectrum are all ‘access’ spectrum in that they are used to connect your phone to a mobile tower—over even 6-8 km in rural areas— to give you voice/data services. After your data traffic reaches the mobile tower, it is taken to the telco’s mobile switch by aggregating data from various mobile towers and transporting this using ‘backhaul’ microwave spectrum or optic fibre.
For perspective on the ‘scam’ theory, let’s examine the current policy. The government has delicensed the 2400 MHz and 5000 MHz bands for wifi—keep in mind, the V-band is nothing but wifi on steroids—but no one has alleged a scam in this. Since the 2300/2500-bands cost around R 1,650 crore per MHz, we can assume that as the cost of the 2400 MHz and around half that for the 5000-band. Multiply this with the amount of spectrum in both bands, and not auctioning the wifi band translates into a ‘scam’ of Rs 2.1 lakh crore!
When a band is delicensed—as should be done for the V-band—as was done for 2400/5000 MHz, anyone can use those bands to offer wifi services; they are not allocated to any one or set of users, and there is no scam. The 2400/5000 MHz wifi band is not the only band that is not auctioned. Right now, the government allocates microwave spectrum based on the ‘access’ spectrum telcos have and no one has talked of there being a ‘scam’ here either; telcos use the backhaul spectrum to buttress the ‘access’ spectrum they have paid for anyway, so where is the scam?
One of the reasons why mobile internet access is slow is because telcos can’t move data across their mobile towers efficiently as the microwave links given to them are not fast enough. While optic fibre is an option, laying it is very difficult as getting municipal permissions takes a long time. Also, in congested cities, it may not even be possible to dig everywhere. In such a situation, the E-band allows a much higher amount of data to be hauled to/away from towers than conventional microwave links. That is, the E-band is critical if the speed of mobile internet has to rise. And given there is so much spectrum available in this band—around 5,000 MHZ— there is no problem allocating this to telcos in place of their current microwave links.
Theoretically, the E-band can be used to provide ‘access’ services as well, and that is why several telcos don’t want it delicensed but want it ‘allocated’ to them. This is short-sighted because, since the signals on this band attenuate very quickly—as a general rule, the higher the frequency band, the faster the signal attenuates—someone who tries to set up a mobile ‘access’ network to rival that of an existing telco operating in the 800/900/1800/2100/2400 MHz band will need around 75 times more towers, assuming wifi/mobile devices are built to operate on this band! There is the possibility that internet service providers will use the E-band to provide equally good internet services, but since they also pay the same revenue share as telcos, there is nothing wrong with that.
The more interesting case is that of the V-band. Like all bands in higher frequencies, it attenuates fast, more so because the oxygen molecules and the radio waves clash in this particular frequency; the signal probably can’t be carried for more than 300-400 metres, making it totally unsuitable as ‘access’ spectrum. But, unlike the conventional wifi which can only give you a carrier size of around 20/40 MHz, the V-band allows a carrier size that is 50-100 times larger, making it ideal for truly amazing speeds on wifi within a building or a limited geographical area. Take the case of a person getting, say, a 1 GB per second speed on her fibre network at home—the current wifi capability won’t allow her to get even a fraction of this speed but a device connected to a V-band-based wifi will.
Given this, it makes sense for the government to completely delicense the V-band so that it can be used for high-speed wifi. The E-band, on the other hand, is much better than today’s microwave for backhaul—especially as data traffic builds up on 4G and later 5G networks—and, like microwave, can be allocated to telcos for their backhaul requirements. There is no scam in either proposal, indeed, it only goes to help India get faster bandwidth. The sooner telecom officials understand that, and communicate this to the Cabinet, the better it is for Digital India.