A pro-people agenda in telecom

Allocating radio frequencies for third generation (3G) services, additional spectrum for existing 2G services and yet-to-be launched wireless broadband services using Wi-Max are obvious priority tasks in telecom, in addition to removing all restrictions on internet-based telephony within the country. However, a pro-people agenda in telecom calls for much more.

The focus of policy must shift from providing voice connectivity to the remotest villages to making high-speed broadband connectivity available cheap to all Indians. Voice can ride on broadband and will become virtually free. High-speed broadband connectivity might sound geeky, but is a vital component of inclusive growth. Whether financial inclusion, leak-proof transfer of welfare and subsidy payments to target beneficiaries, concurrent evaluation and monitoring of development projects, popular supervision of civil servants to hold them accountable, newer ways of delivering quality healthcare and education or broadbasing access to economic opportunities in a globalising world, access to high-speed broadband is the key.

Writing in the Economic Times, renowned technologist Raj Reddy made a point that policymakers would do well to bear in mind: when it comes to bandwidth requirement, the poor and the less educated need more, much more, than the educated. What a simple email containing a couple of equations would communicate to an engineer would require a great deal of pictures, graphs and explanatory text for easy comprehension by those with only rudimentary education.

For telecom to be an enabler of new economic activity in India’s rural areas — growing orchids on a Himalayan slope according to expert instruction from a buyer in Amsterdam or creating filigree designs out of gold wire in a Kerala village to meet the orders of a retail chain, for example — it is not sufficient for telecom to remain confined to voice connectivity.

Much of the technology, financial resources and organisational capability required to provide all Indians with high-speed broadband connectivity already exists. Only the needed political will is missing. The new government must make good the deficit.

Upwards of Rs 20,000 crore is lying in the Universal Service Obligation Fund, waiting to be used. This is more than enough to connect not just every district but also every development block with fat fibre-optic pipes. (The laying of these pipes would also provide a stimulus to the economy, incidentally.) Last mile broadband access can be provided through Wi-Max and 3G services.

A plan to link every district with fibre optic cable had been mooted by the telecom ministry when Mr Maran had headed the ministry but was abandoned. That scheme should be revived.

Augmentation of spectrum is another key challenge. While getting defence to vacate spectrum has been on the agenda for ages, releasing the spectrum reserved for terrestrial broadcast and occupied by Doordarshan hardly gets any attention. DD should simply be told to go digital over the next one year. It, too, can be given some money to make the transition. True, those who watch terrestrial TV on old, pre-digital TV sets would have to invest in a set-top box to convert digital signals into analogue ones. This would be a minor cost, given the huge social gain to be had from releasing large swathes of spectrum for telecom.

Security is a major concern. The government must build sufficient capacity to set standards and test every single piece of equipment used in the network. It must build the capacity to monitor India’s communication network, civilian as well as defence, to ensure security. This would call for sizeable investment, which should come from the defence budget.

Another key state initiative is R&D.

There are certain kinds of R&D that may not hold much appeal for the private sector. Technology to do away with the current system of dedicated spectrum for each service provider is one such. The current system of giving a dedicated chunk of spectrum to each service provider, leading to the ongoing bitter scramble for spectrum, is a result of antiquated technology. Ideally, all spectrum should be at the disposal of a spectrum exchange.

When a call is originated, the spectrum demand for that call should be placed on the exchange, and met from the stock of unused spectrum available at the moment. The spectrum required can be priced to reflect the relative scarcity of spectrum during the call. To create such a dynamic, real-time spectrum exchange possible, significant R&D is called for, both in the network and in the consumer equipment.

All of them must be capable of hopping frequencies across the usable electromagnetic spectrum. In-band transmission and mesh networks already possess some of the needed characteristics. What is needed is some additional R&D. The government should fund it, to end spectrum scarcity. It is time the government stopped being a roadblock on the communications highway and became a real facilitator.


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