Tuning the Digital India dream

By: |
November 24, 2015 12:30 AM

This article is not for telecom technologists and experts, it is primarily for government policy-makers, regulators and laymen, and identifies the main reason for the poor performance of the ambitious Digital India initiative.

Digital India is not possible without broadband regulatory reforms.Digital India is not possible without broadband regulatory reforms.

This article is not for telecom technologists and experts, it is primarily for government policy-makers, regulators and laymen, and identifies the main reason for the poor performance of the ambitious Digital India initiative. Despite India being a foremost mobile nation with 1 billion mobile connections, it is not being able to convert them into broadband lines, while the rest of the world is fast converting those lines into mobile broadband. In addition, mobile broadband is India’s only hope; fixed lines being only 3%.

I recall the FBI tried to search and arrest a Polish student in the early 2000s in the US, who had put voice on internet lines. That was illegal then. He could not be caught, since he kept changing locations to small rooms in the US. His only requirement was an internet plug, where he kept introducing his service/software. Everyone realised that no one could stop this march of technology, and ultimately voice over internet was allowed. The internet then became a happening place, leading to development of various software, apps, banking, OTTs and other services.

Something similar happened to WLL phones in India, which were based on mobile technology but were fixed as per regulation. They started becoming mobile, courtesy a loophole in regulation. Finally, regulation had to allow them to become mobile in 2003, with a level-playing field. Mobile networks then exploded to 100 times the earlier growth. The inevitable conclusion is that regulators should never block technology from doing what it can. Regulation should only ensure a level-playing field on the network. Hence, the basic network having been set up already, the regulator for broadband upgrade should only ensure a liberalised network where all kinds of services, appliances and software can enter without hindrance in an automatic authorisation mode, provided in converged regulations, and for investors to know how this network will behave in the future. Only such a network can ensure a viable broadband.
We have to multiply this approach many times over in Digital India, where hundreds of technologies will develop on the internet, demanding equal treatment and unhindered access and usage. It is not possible in an environment where each service requires you to go to the regulator and multiple departments and agencies for a nod each time.

The converged broadband network, developed in the US and many other countries, has become a carrier of everything that earlier used to run on brick-and-mortar routes or on exchanges. Most developed countries with converged systems have grown fast. Once such liberalised networks developed, they became the breeding ground for innovations, new applications, services and technologies, adding to the network’s viability.

Let us see the growth of broadband in India, a country with non-convergent and non-liberalised network, in comparison to other countries, mostly with convergent and liberalised networks and regulations.

Mobile broadband started in 2010 on the same mobile network (though requiring some upgrade) in the world. Fixed broadband’s development was slow as total fixed upgradable lines were low (broadband lines are less than 1 billion in the world today, and would continue to be so till 2020 at the current rate of growth). In developed countries, it has covered most households and thus almost the entire population is broadband-enabled (five members in a household). Mobile broadband in the world has grown hugely in developed countries due to need for ubiquitous (available everywhere—hence mobile with universal coverage) broadband and in underdeveloped countries also due to absence of fixed lines. This upgrade has been high on mobile networks in the world between 2010 and 2015, from almost zero to 3.5 billion (on 7.1 billion mobile lines, i.e. 48%), and is expected to exceed 8 billion at the current rate of growth in 2020 (on 9 billion lines, i.e. 88%). In India, on the other hand, where we require mobile broadband the most—having very poor fixed teledensity (3%)—we have grown from nil to 80 million subscriptions (on 1 billion lines, i.e. 8%) between 2010 to 2015, against a target of 170 million and 600 million for 2017 and 2020 (target including fixed broadband which is likely to remain static around 15-30 million due to lack of transmission medium).

Why is our conversion to mobile broadband and its density so poor? Why is the second largest mobile network in the world doing so poorly in broadband conversion—it being at 113th position as per Trai report dated April 17, 2015. It cannot be due to the capacity of our mobile telecom operators—they were world beaters between 2003 and 2015, when they exceeded China’s rate of growth, three times, during a number of years. There have to be other reasons.
The primary reason is inappropriate regulation. In India—an advanced digital country—we had identified in 2001 that broadband and other services required convergence and sent a Convergence Bill to Parliament, which referred it to a select committee. The committee recommended converged networks/regulation in 2004, but by then the problem had been partially solved by the government and Trai going to a milder unified route, not requiring legislation. With technology moving on, the problem today is different, but still requires a converged network/regulation. Another half-hearted attempt towards this was made by DoT in 2012, but was perhaps given up on the altar of individual ministries having to give up their case to granting powers, and incumbent operators’ concerns about reducing profits amply demonstrated when new mobile regulations of 2003 reduced tariffs hugely, despite being aware that only reducing tariffs will bring subscriber growth in broadband also.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world moved on, creating converged regulators/networks. In 2012, ITU’s Trends Broadband Report defined best networks/practices in developed and developing countries as “independent, converged, integrated regulation”, and identified such networks in countries having high broadband growth.
The State of Broadband Report 2015 of Broadband Commission has stated that “countries which have moved to more innovative fourth-generation regulation (which include converged regulation features) are generally associated with higher levels of broadband penetration and growth.”

As per ITU’s Trends in Telecommunication Reform Report 2015, “many countries have adopted or are in the process of adopting more flexible regulatory frameworks over the past decade. An analysis of countries’ specific regulatory practices shows that a growing number of countries have adopted new regulations and permitted the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).” These measures show that convergence is the practice in most countries, and only regulatory measures needed are to level the playing field between different digital players, as a means of promoting broadband.

The report further clarifies the regulations that shaped broadband growth are encouraging FDI, spectrum trading, establishing competitive market between technologies, infrastructure sharing, adoption of class and general licensing, consumers allowed to use VoIP, and preparing broadband plan and roadmap. These measures are easily implementable in converged regulation ambience, and not in kind of service-wise licensing. We, in India, still follow the practices/regulations of telecom regulation days.

Trai, in its recommendations of April 17, 2015, on “Delivering BB Quickly” stated that for the past seven years or more, issues concerning convergence and broadband have been repeatedly discussed at length in conferences and seminars. More often than not, such deliberations have focused attention on the public good that would accrue from establishing a broadband network. Unfortunately, by comparison, the attention devoted to what needs to be done to make broadband a reality has been far from adequate, again indicating we have not moved to a converged liberal network regulation required for broadband growth.

The operators are using telecom networks to provide telecom, broadband and broadcast services. The telecom services are regulated by DoT, and broadcast services by I&B. Further, the broadband services are both overseen by DoT and Department of IT. This creates numerous conflicts and the government is mostly busy dealing with these, rather than evolve policies for a quick growth of everything on the internet, which are very important for moving towards Digital India. Meanwhile, most other countries are becoming digital while we stagnate at levels shown above.

The author is former chairman, Trai, and consultant to WB/ITU on telecom/broadband regulation

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