Telecom Talk: India needs a new metric to judge network quality

Overall network speed worked when video-streaming was not as ubiquitous, and not as central to the right to work and right to education as it is now

Telecom Talk: India needs a new metric to judge network quality
Many of us walk around our homes with a phone and laptop in hand, searching for strong signal.

In these unprecedented times, how often we have had to wring our hands over entering a poor coverage space and losing signal, resorting to, for instance, turning the camera off to improve audio quality in a poor-network area! Such examples have, unfortunately, become part and parcel of work-from-home. Access to the internet is a fundamental human right. But, ever since the Covid-19 pandemic began, it has become closely tied to our other fundamental rights—the right to work and the right to an education.

OTT video-conferencing has shot through the roof due to work-from-home and online education. Right now, it is also a lifeline for our health. Network connectivity is needed to register and get vaccines, connect to helplines, and seek oxygen or a hospital bed for loved ones, etc. Doctors worldwide are offering telemedicine services. Isn’t it time we raised the expectations on quality of service with regards to network connectivity in our country?

India places a low 49th in the global ranking of countries for quality of experience (5GMARK). We continue to measure internet Quality of Service (QoS) solely by network speeds. But, this is now woefully inadequate; 20 years ago, most of our communication was limited to a few calls, text messages, and e-mails, but now, we need to measure network quality by video performance.

Whether for entertainment, work, school, or other activities of daily life, Indians have an insatiable thirst and need for video-streaming. At 30% CAGR, India is the world’s fastest-growing OTT market and is expected to hit $3 billion in five years. The more accurate measure of our network is how fast our videos download, the viewing experience of our 500 million+ consumers, the responsiveness and efficiency of the OTT platform or app. This is a top priority right now, with Covid-19 continuing to force restrictions on movement.

For the last three decades, our focus was to grow the reach of mobile and data services—and rightly so. With over 800 million internet-users, India has the second-largest such base in the world and could hit 1 billion well before 2025. This is an achievement of which we must be immensely proud. But now, we need to set and achieve higher goals. Indian users have already adopted a video-first approach to internet access. But the quality of our video streaming and network connectivity must catch up.

Unfortunately, with quiet resignation, we have accepted that phone and video calls will be interrupted and sub-optimal inside buildings. Cell phone and internet signals must be strong to penetrate through the thick metal sheets of elevators or stone, but they are too weak in India. Many of us walk around our homes with a phone and laptop in hand, searching for strong signal.

We need a better rating system for our wired and wireless networks. Fortunately, we now have new measurable technology metrics to gauge the QoS of our OTT platforms. A recently released report from MOZARK compares OTT video streaming performance and ranks them based on various parameters. The study measures overall quality through multiple metrics. Interestingly, it offers an Application Quality Index (or AQI) score that rates OTT platforms based on time to load, responsiveness, and other consumer-facing metrics. For example, it highlights that content delivery networks (CDN) deliver 60% of any OTT’s video traffic. CDNs that score higher in wider geographical networks and functional parameters have a strong influence on service levels. Widespread adoption and continuous monitoring of these metrics can significantly help improve the quality of service.

Take the example of the global standard for rating green buildings—the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating. Any building or housing community can get LEED-certified, provided they adhere to the LEED’s framework for sustainability. Benefits include water conservation, lower waste, more green materials used in construction, and reduced energy use and carbon emissions.

It would be beneficial for India to similarly develop a set of connectivity standards for all buildings in India to work towards improved in-building internet connectivity. Standards would enable a monitoring, the best way to help improve network connectivity.

In the late 1990s, digital connectivity in India was newly-born and did not care if it worked in only one spot in the house or if we had to twist ourselves into strange poses to catch a signal from our terrace. But, in 2021, India’s wired and wireless networks are approaching middle age, and what was acceptable decades ago cannot be the standard for our future.

From businesses to large residential housing societies, there is a high demand for video content. It is high time to add quality of connectivity metrics to our geographical penetration numbers to measure the true success of Indian internet. Atmanirbhar India could well be a trailblazer and develop its own quality index for its journey of digital transformation.

Research inputs from Chandana Bala.

Writer is an honorary fellow, IET (London), and president, Broadband India Forum

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