Assessing the way forward for growth of broadband internet in a compulsively digitized economy
Last month the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), conducted a ‘brainstorming’ session on the developing a roadmap for growth of broadband in India. A significantly large ‘bandwidth’ of the daylong session was dedicated to discussing the current state of broadband in India, by TRAI officials as well as industry representatives. BharatNet, the flagship program for expansion of broadband in rural India was at the center of all discourse. As if taking a que from this event, the Union Budget also took notice of the need to provide funds for increasing broadband penetration and allotted 10,000 crore to the BharatNet Project. The budget revised the target of laying down optical fiber cable in more than 1.5 lakh gram panchayats to end of the fiscal year. While such efforts to take broadband to the yet unconnected are indeed worth a note, their utility is needs to become a part of public discourse as well.
Desired outcomes of Digital India are directly correlated to how connectivity is taken to the farthest corners of the country.
BharatNet – ‘Air India’ of Broadband?
BharatNet started in 2011 as the National Open Fiber Network (NOFN). Its original target was to take optical fiber connectivity to 2.5 lakh gram panchayats by 2013 at an initial cost of 20,000 crores. In 2013, this deadline was revised to 2015, then the NDA government gave another extension till 2016. Now this year’s Union Budget has further extended the deadline to March 2018. Apart from deadline extension and fund infusion, the project has also been subjected to a parliamentary committee report, a consultation paper by TRAI and numerous closed door sessions to discuss viability and feasibility of continuing the project. Recently, a study conducted by IIT Delhi and Lirnesia (ICT think tank) to assess the demand side issues with the project concluded that as many as 75% respondents of their survey felt that ‘they can continue work without internet’ also, 73% responded that ‘they do not have the required connectivity devices to access the internet’. Does it then make sense to continue funding this project in its current form? TRAI itself has recommended moving the implementation of BharatNet to a PPP model. There is substantial evidence available to conclude that BharatNet in its present form is only focusing on laying cables and not on the objective of getting people to tap into the infinite possibilities that the internet brings along, at the cost of the national exchequer.
NITI Aayog’s push for trails of new technologies
Desired outcomes of Digital India are directly correlated to how connectivity is taken to the farthest corners of the country. Considering limitations in existing models of broadband penetration, the NITI Aayog approved trials of disruptive technology solutions early last year. Important among these were the use of ‘White Spectrum’ and VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal technology) satellite technology. VSAT in simple terms is internet connectivity via satellites. It involves a network of Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites that deliver satellite internet services and mobile backhaul services to urban and rural areas alike. High operating costs have been the biggest hurdle for implementation of this technology. Delivering one MB of data using VSAT costs 300 times more compared to that in the US. However, this technology is already being used in remote ATMs and has shown that it has the capacity to provide the last mile connectivity that BharatNet has not been able to attain even after seven years.
On the other hand, White Spectrum trails are stuck in the bureaucratic quagmire of Delhi. White Spectrum uses the unutilized spectrum between the 200-300 MHz frequencies allotted to television channels for providing wireless data transmission. In India, this spectrum is presently held by Doordarshan and using it calls for coordination between Department of Telecommunications (DoT), the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B), the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeITY), and the TRAI. Considering the fact that we have a majority government at the center that has a documented focus on enabling technology based governance, getting these stakeholders on the table should not be a herculean task as it is made to appear.
Stations and Terragraphs
Another model that could be given serious consideration is that of Google Station. It has all the markings of a successful industry partnership implemented by a responsible government body. Recently, Google announced that the city of Pune will soon become the first place in the world to see Google deploy fast-internet hotspots at public places as part of its Station project. Larson & Turbo, RailTel & IBM are the other partners in this project that will be implemented under the ‘Smart City’ plan of the Pune Municipal Corporation. The project is presently valued at Rs 150 crore with PMC expecting a revenue share between 15-20% from this project. If implemented successfully, this project can become a template for the other smart city projects. If extended to adjoining rurban areas, it will also give a working business model for the growth of public Wi-Fi in rural areas.
While Google is focusing on using existing technology and coming up with revenue generation models that will attract investments from multiple stakeholders, Facebook is focusing on developing cost effective technology as an alternative to existing ones. One such project is Terragraph, a 60 GHz, multi-node wireless system that utilizes commercial off-the-shelf components for high-volume, low-cost production. 60 GHz has traditionally been avoided due to its high absorption of oxygen and water that makes it difficult to implement in outdoor environments. But countries like United States, United Kingdom, Germany, China, South Korea, Japan, and others have unlicensed this part of the spectrum, (like the Wi-Fi 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands) and made it available for trails of new connectivity standards and equipment. TRAI has been vocal about de-licensing this spectrum but little traction is visible on this front. TRAI would do good to allow for pilot projects of such technologies to be implemented with our Smart City projects.
India presently sits with some of the world’s under-developed countries when it comes to broadband penetration. Also global experiences show that apart from the Australian broadband network, state-funded broadband expansion projects have not had the best of results. One of the main reasons for this has been the insistence on usage of a particular technology which in our case is optical fiber. Allowing trials of new technologies and de-licensing spectrum that is needed for running such trails will not only help the cause of broadband penetration but also help in promoting local entrepreneurship, innovation and employment generation. Digital India needs solid foundations of connectivity to succeed as a flagship project that aims to drive citizen engagement, internet governance and digital economy. It would be paramount that the various bodies of the government associated with it collaborate amongst themselves as well as with private players to ensure that our villages don’t end up waiting for broadband like they did for electricity for all these years.