Cart before the horse?

Whatever people may say about Prime Minister Modi, he has demonstrated strong will to act. Cooking gas penetration has improved the life of the home maker. Electricity is available in 80 per cent of the homes.  Banking is available to all with world leading payment systems. Universal health insurance promises to leave the United States in the dark, making President Trump curious. Toilets were installed in rural homes. Now there is focus on making water available. These initiatives together count towards the good governance the prime minister promised in the elections. 

But India demands far better governance. A game changer is needed. Universal wired broadband access is the only slingshot the government has in its arsenal to put power in people’s hands and propel the country to greatness.

India is a leader in mobile broadband. However, while all studies attest the critical importance of wired broadband to economic development, jobs and income growth, the jury is mixed on mobile broadband. The World Bank reports that mobile broadband can decrease productive economic activity and growth. Thus, Indians spend 16 hours a month watching video on the tiny screen compared to 15 minutes in 2015. Younger Indians likely watch more. 

So do demonetisation and GST take too much of the blame? TRAI should report how mobile broadband is used. All carriers have the data.

Compared to government spending on other basic citizen utilities — food, housing, cooking gas, electricity, water, sanitation, roads, health, and education, Digital India is on a starvation diet. Consider the data. Only 3 per cent of the Rs 42.5 trillion government spend on these utilities since 2014 went to critical telecommunications.  

A lot was spent on BSNL, not exactly a paragon of good governance. And on BBNL whose charter to connect village panchayats was subcontracted to BSNL. The result is that India’s wired broadband subscriber base is just 18 million and declining according to TRAI. It is growing in peer countries. Further, the government’s option to offer rural broadband services on BSNL’s fibre assets is stymied.

Wireless is a poor substitute for wired broadband in India. Brick housing bars easy penetration of 4G and 5G frequencies. Dense populations share scarce spectrum leading to slow service or outages. Wireless is expensive to use compared to wired. Family members pay individually to use wireless whereas wired broadband is shared. 

Location-specific nature of wired assuage cyber and national security concerns. Surveillance cameras require wired broadband. In Kashmir, good wired broadband penetration would have limited citizen suffering without hindering anti-terrorism activities. Perceptions of health risks posed by wireless towers and phones remain. Above all, smart phones distract from productive work. The youth-user is conditioned to check the phone 150 times a day!

Great governance requires smartness-enabled productive farms and efficient markets, food distribution, water supply, timely sanitation, utilization of transportation infrastructure, health screening and monitoring, electricity usage, and access to the world’s latest educational content by all. Just imagine the smart skills and millions of new jobs potentially created in the process.  

The “smart” requires reliable, universal access to wired broadband infrastructure. Even 5G wireless requires pervasive wired broadband to work. Like WiFi, it enhances the utilisation of wired broadband infrastructure, not substitute. You can’t put the cart before the horse. 

Wired networks are more complex to operate than wireless. Network assets must reach every home. In wireless, towers are installed on fiber along main roads with offices nearby to sign-up subscribers. Now, additional wired competitive offerings to BSNL are coming up only in the major cities. Existing wired broadband subscribers may have another choice. What happens to the critical need for growth?

Prime Minister Modi knows the answer. Cable TV networks in use reach 50 per cent of Indian homes. They are easily upgraded to deliver world class wired broadband. Required capital expenditure of Rs 50,000 crore spread over three years, is a little over 1 per cent of the Rs 10.4 trillion current year budget for basic citizen utilities.  

It will create a smart and secure central nervous system for India. The rural broadband problem is solved by extension. Delivery of other citizen utility services will become resource and time efficient. A vibrant $100 billion-dollar new industry by value would be created. 

India therefore has no alternative to cable broadband.

The Prime Minister formed an inter-ministerial committee to develop cable broadband in 2015. The time is now ripe to implement the recommendations. All is needed is strong political will. 
The author led foreign  investments into India in the media and telecommunications industry

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