Why are telecom firms so keen to own contentious E and V spectrum bands?

For the uninitiated, the E and V band spectrum have huge bandwidths and can carry enormous amounts of data
The clarion call from telecom companies (telcos) was unanimous: The contentious E and V bands have to be auctioned like any other spectrum. And just last week they sent a strongly worded letter through the Cellular Operators’ Association of India (COAI) to communications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to the effect that any move otherwise would be “legally untenable, destroying the level playing field” and lead to huge revenue losses for the government.

But the opposition, led by the Broadband India Forum (BIF) with star members such as Facebook, Google and chip maker Qualcomm, is equally vehement. They are demanding that this spectrum should be delicensed so that millions of entrepreneurs who want to set up public WiFi hotspots can do so. They say if telcos corner the spectrum, the government’s ambition to have over five million WiFi hotspots this year (from just 300,600-odd currently) and double that number by 2023, which is the cornerstone of “Digital India”, will come a cropper.

For the uninitiated, the E and V band spectrum have huge bandwidths and can carry enormous amounts of data. But they can operate over short distances — up to six km for E band and up to 200 metres for V band. The V band has another advantage; if unlicensed, it can offer spectrum that has far less interference from other unlicensed bands such as the one currently used for WiFi routers.

So what’s the fuss all about? Why are telcos so keen to own these spectrum bands? It is worth remembering that a few years ago when the matter came to the fore, only new entrant Reliance Jio demanded auctions for these bands. At that time, incumbent operators wanted the E and V bands to be allocated and bundled with the spectrum they bought in the auction. Clearly, they were not interested in auction of the E and V bands then.

What’s changed is the explosion in the use of data and the urgent need to expand the supply of broadband internet. E and V bands would literally fill in the blanks — spectrum in these bands can be used for last-mile connectivity between the towers — known as backhaul in technical terms. Currently some 30 per cent of telco towers are connected via fibre, and it is estimated that telcos would have to collectively invest around $3.5 billion to merely double the number of towers with a fibre backhaul — and that’s not accounting for the cumbersome process of obtaining right of way to physically lay the fibre. E and V band would be a cheaper and quicker substitute to bridge this gap.

But to ensure a reliable backhaul, telcos say they would require the spectrum to be exclusively used by them, especially as many functions performed on 5G networks — remote robotic surgery, for instance — would require extremely low latency (or transmission delays). Such work cannot be undertaken with unlicensed spectrum with uncontrolled multiple usage.

But the problem has been that the regulator has not endorsed the telcos’ call. In 2014, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) suggested a light-touch fixed fee regime but no auction for backhaul spectrum, and it has stuck by this stand since. Former TRAI chairman R S Sharma, who recently demitted office, had openly chided telcos, saying their perception that WiFi hotspots will cut into their data wireless revenues amounted to short-term thinking.

Yet the Department of Telecom appears to have been unable to make up its mind on the issue.

Said BIF President T V Ramachandran, “If these bands are not delicensed, there is no way that we will be able to achieve our ambitious target for proliferation of WiFi hotspots and high broadband speeds. After all, 70 countries, including the US, have exempted these bands from licensing and we should follow the global trend.”

Tech companies led by BIF debunk the telcos’ argument that all spectrum needs to be auctioned, according to the Supreme Court order of 2012. An BIF executive argued that the Supreme Court order applied only to “access spectrum” — or the spectrum that is needed for mobile connectivity to the consumer. But they were also using backhaul or microwave in various spectrum bands within this administered mechanism. If the argument is that all spectrum has to be auctioned, then it stands to reason that this backhaul spectrum should be taken back and re-auctioned too.

The V band spectrum, according to the BIF, with its limited coverage can only be used indoors to augment the existing 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz spectrum used to enable WiFi routers to connect devices (such as a laptop or TV, or a Google Home Smart Voice) and offer customers better speeds and connectivity.

“The V Band spectrum has no use for telcos for backhaul at all; for that, they require the E band. But they want to corner whatever spectrum they can and deprive customers of better services,” the BIF executive said.

Estimates by broadband players suggest that an auction would not give the government more than Rs 4,000 crore, which is pittance compared to the economic impact of proliferation of WiFi and high speeds. A study by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, which advocated delicensing a few years ago, had projected that a 50 per cent increase in average internet speed by the use of these bands could lead to a GDP increase of around 0.15 per cent.

But a top telco executive said: “Today E and V bands might have low value, but with technological advancement, the spectrum could have a huge premium. Giving it free to people who just horde it would mean a huge dent in government revenues.”

Now, it’s DoT’s call to make.

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