Two steps to boost broadband usage

Topics broadband | Wifi | Internet

Last month, the Cabinet announced a radical policy to expand Wi-Fi coverage across the country and to increase broadband internet access and usage. It sets out how anyone can establish public Wi-Fi hotspot networks in accordance with specified protocols, and resell broadband internet to users(1).

Media reports have been largely enthusiastic, though sometimes confusing, despite strong opposition by telecom operators and Internet service providers (ISPs), who may consider this an infringement of their licensed rights. The argument that they too can set up Wi-Fi hotspots on similar terms is specious, because it ignores their having paid huge sums already for these licensed, contractual rights. 

The new policy enables any individual or enterprise to set up public Wi-Fi networks without a licence, and without any fees to the government. Until now only licensed telcos and ISPs could do so, after paying for licences, and in the case of telcos, for spectrum as well. This is why Wi-Fi without government charges seems cheaper. Some aspects of the policy are not clear, such as whether existing laws allow for reselling Internet services by subscribers (equivalent to subletting, which was prohibited), or how it will be commercially feasible and viable for small businesses. In other words, who will pay, and why, if they already have access to inexpensive cellular services. There is also the question of whether transnationals such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and so on would be permitted if they were interested in considering investment in connectivity, especially in corporate and dense commercial centres, and whether Indian corporations would have similar interests. But all of these are likely to need additional enablers as described below.

As ubiquitous broadband internet is an end-to-end service, its foremost requirement is for high-capacity, reliable connectivity throughout the chain. Without the “plumbing” that enables access to data flow and repositories, as with water, it is limited in its availability and reach. The policy change focuses on the last-mile at the user end, whereas our problems extend from the user all the way back to the fibre core or subnetworks. It is this middle-mile from the fibre to the kerb, or to the home or a customer’s premises before the user link, or from a gram panchayat to the village, that is also missing, and difficult to fulfill. A report by the Telecommunications Standards Development Society, India suggests most villages would be within 5-10 km from gram panchayats.

Accepting the need to improve broadband access:

Illustration: Binay Sinha
One step is to fix the gaps in the communications chain that this policy addresses, namely, distribution at the user end, and technology gaps. Consider the most fundamental element of digital communications, connectivity. There seem to be incomplete links in communications networks in the planning and execution of broadband Internet service delivery of what is required, and where. Perhaps some of it is because of an expectation of markets being self-organising systems, which does not hold universally. Wireless solutions for the middle-mile are tantalisingly close, because the spectrum is available but not permitted in India. This is partly because of contention on treating some bands as open Wi-Fi or restricted to licensed telcos, or to broadcasting, or only 4G (details in footnote) (2). Only licensed operators need unconstrained access to these bands, on the lines of the Department of Telecommunications’ (DoT’s) regulations for 5 GHz Wi-Fi, modelled on the US Federal Communications Commission regulations.

 The second aspect, for consideration and consultation because it contradicts the new policy, calls for a radically different approach. Yet, it is critical, because maintaining stability is imperative in such a crucial infrastructure service that affects so many areas of living, working, education, entertainment, leisure, governance and security. Especially now, with a pandemic and the looming non-performing asset constraints. We need to expand usage with minimal disruption. Would it not be more effective to remove government charges from telcos and ISPs, as for new entrants, and permit licensed operators in the industry to grow? The straightforward reasons are that they have the established market presence, capacity and experience. Some requisite regulations are in place. This would help maintain stability when we need it most. Operators have the rights and are likely to act on opportunities to expand, if only they had the resources and incentives. The resources would be partly from the savings from not paying licence fees, in line with the waiver of fees for new entrants. Take away all government charges and licence fees, and the operators are not only likely to invest in hotspots for many urban clusters and aggregates of rural users, we may also have a resurgent communications services industry. 

Viewing it objectively, operators have already paid licence fees and auction prices for spectrum, resulting in government charges being 30 per cent of revenues for telcos, excluding income tax, unlike in any other industry. In addition, the 2G scam stalled the sector as a whole, because penalties against some perpetrators upended the industry, penalising everyone.  Spectrum was restricted and expensive, thereby escalating equipment costs while constraining revenues. As a consequence, users are deprived of enabling facilities, restricting productivity.

This would remove potential threats of litigation for breach of contract, because of arbitrary changes in licensing terms. Problems such as “retrospective taxes” would still remain to be scotched, while management of spectrum and 5G would need equally radical changes in approach and policy going forward.

A gap created by these changes, which the new policy covers, would need resolution: Enabling community Wi-Fi networks, especially in rural areas, because they may be less commercially attractive, and more difficult to build and operate until supportive ecosystems grow. Incentives for rural extension would round out the rational support. 

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