India is the shining example of exemplary success in growth of mobile telecom for serving the voice communication needs of people. While this is something to be proud of and is the envy of other countries, one is, at the same time, quite concerned to note the growing weakness in another critical aspect of telecommunications—the capabilities of delivering fixed broadband in homes/offices. Although mobile broadband may always be the major constituent in India, there will increasingly be limitations on speed and overall quality due to exponential growth in data and great constraints on spectrum. Especially so in heavy data transactions or video-streaming, and it is predicted that very soon more than 70% of the internet traffic will be video content. Moreover, as per industry estimates, 60% of total mobile data traffic was offloaded onto the fixed network through Wi-Fi or femtocell in 2016, and this is an emerging trend suggesting the growing importance of fixed broadband. Indian broadband quality leaves much room for improvement and we are one of the lowest broadband speed nations in Asia-Pacific.
In this context, the importance and role of fixed broadband for India just cannot be understated or overemphasised. Rajat Kathuria et al have written about the need to focus more on fixed and fibre for broadband in the forthcoming National Telecom Policy 2018. While fully agreeing with them, this writer would like to strongly highlight the fact that fixed broadband is not limited to wireline or optic fibre. There is the very potent medium of cable broadband which is also a fixed broadband that can deliver high quality Gigabit speed services. Hence the need to urgently leverage the already-available and inadequately-utilised infrastructure of Indian cable TV networks. This is an excellent option that many other countries are successfully utilising to deliver high-speed, high-quality broadband in homes. Visitors to, say, the US would immediately relate to the fact that in most homes excellent quality broadband is delivered by cable operators and speeds of 20-25Mbps are the norm. Unfortunately, in India, we get only about one-third of these speeds and all through mobile broadband. This simply cannot take us forward and the gap between us and other comparable nations would only keep widening.
The importance of cable for broadband was declared as far back as six years ago when the government envisaged, in NTP 2012, the need “to incorporate enabling provisions in the current regulatory framework so that existing infrastructure including cable TV networks are optimally utilised for extending high-quality broadband services in rural areas also.” Cable TV networks are providing last-mile access to 110 million homes in over 1,500 towns. Even if we assume that only four per household will use the access, cable TV can overnight provide broadband access to 440 million persons. In fact, TRAI chairman RS Sharma unambiguously stated in May 2016 that “100 million (digital cable) homes with same pipe and a little bit of upgrade can be used for delivery of robust broadband connectivity to 500 million people.”
To examine the actions necessary to realise the potential of broadband through cable TV network, a high-level inter-ministerial committee that included secretaries of Information & Broadcasting, Department of Telecommunications and Electronics & IT constituted a senior inter-ministerial subcommittee at the joint secretary/DDG level from all the three ministries and even including an expert from TRAI. It is verily believed that the subcommittee went into the matter comprehensively, and stumbling blocks for delivering broadband over cable TV network were identified and solutions for resolving the difficulties also apparently agreed, but one wonders why the actions are not flowing.
As regards permissibility under the applicable rules for individuals and partnerships (who are fully eligible to offer cable TV service) to take a unified licence for broadband service, frankly, there is no difficulty here because Section 4(1) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, clearly states that “the central government may grant a licence, on such conditions and in consideration of such payments as it thinks fit.” For example, we have the brilliant example of the historic issuance of internet service provider (ISP) licences in November 2003, for `1 only, which enabled India’s entry into the internet era. Similar policy actions are possible to facilitate the much-needed contribution of cable TV networks to broadband and Digital India. An alternative route for interested cable TV operators could be to take the option of becoming reseller or franchisee of the telco or become a virtual network operator parented to telcos. Telecom and I&B policies should clarify the availability of all these solutions.
Another challenge cited often is the inability or delay in getting Right of Way (RoW) permissions from concerned local/state authorities for rolling out cable network. Here again, a similar problem impacting telcos has been addressed by the DoT, taking the recourse available in the Telegraph Act to formulate suitable rules. This has started resolving the difficulties of telcos in the field. It may be noted that, on similar lines as provided in the Telegraph Act, Section 4B of the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, provides for I&B to formulate rules to remove difficulties of cable operators.
Measures to actively promote Wi-Fi and other integrated (converged) services on cable that will enhance operator revenues, increase government’s revenues and provide additional bouquet of services to consumers at a cost-effective price, and promoting the concept of enabling broadband over cable by conducting awareness programmes, skill development and training amongst local cable operators in the upcoming NTP 2018, would be steps that would help unleash the power of cable broadband. It would also accelerate the pace of the PM’s vision of Digital India. With NTP 2018 on the anvil, the time to act is now.