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Broadband Priority: Key to the country’s digital transformation

February 11, 2019
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By T.V. Ramachandran, President, Broadband India Forum

India can become digitally empowered only by using broadband connectivity. According to the report, “Growth Dividends of Digital Communications: The Case for India”, by the Broadband India Forum and the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, a 10 per cent increase in internet subscribers delivers on average 1.08 per cent increase in GDP output. India is on the verge of a digital tsunami but is under-prepared to cope with the oncoming deluge. The new National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018 has given the clarion call to connect all Indians through its “Broadband for All” proposal. Further, digital infrastructure has been accorded the highest priority as it is the lifeline on which all next-generation services will run.

Investment in 5G, AI, IoT and analytics

In recent times, we have seen the Department of Telecommunications taking many proactive steps specifically to address policy, regulatory and spectrum-related issues through its 5G High Level Forum. The forum has taken the right steps in identifying and optimally pricing globally harmonised spectrum to avoid delays related to ecosystem readiness. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has already taken up consultation on sub-6 GHz 5G spectrum and its auction. India needs spectrum in sub-6 GHz and mmWave bands (>26 GHz) for 5G-based enhanced mobile broadband to be successful. Specifically, India is taking a position on mmWave bands for IMT on various forums in line with the global ecosystem. A radically changed spectrum auction policy/spectrum usage charge policy is a must for 5G to become a reality.

Investment in digital infrastructure

The availability of more than one type of digital infrastructure at any given place helps ensure that there is no dependency on a single system in case of emergencies or disasters, natural or otherwise. This is essential for India, and will require all necessary elements of digital infrastructure – optical fibre, mobile towers, Wi-Fi hotspots, E and V bands, and satcom. The need of the hour is to invest in high quality infrastructure such as new optical fibre networks, upgrading/replacing existing defective cables, and laying bend- and pressure-resistant fibre cables to increase FTTH capabilities.

Fibre

Mobile access has so far led the broadband growth in the country, with fixed access trailing far behind. A strong fibre backbone not only serves as an alternative technology but also supports wireless access. India has a lot of catching up to do in terms of the total fibre deployed-to-population ratio. India’s ratio stands at just 1x as compared to the US at 14x and China at 9x. Additionally, a broadband density of just 13 per cent, compared to China’s 81 per cent, presents a huge opportunity for infrastructure planners to design a shared common fibre infrastructure.

Fiberisation of towers

If 5G is to succeed in India, at least 70-80 per cent of mobile towers will have to be fiberised (against less than 20 per cent at present), failing which severe data speed limitations will continue as existing backhaul networks in India use microwave spectrum.

Satcom

There is little realisation that 10 Gbps of data bandwidth is going waste all over India from satellites, while rural India remains starved of connectivity. Satcom is quick and economical to deploy in rural areas as compared to terrestrial technologies. Satcom can become far more affordable through the adoption of modern technologies and through optimised policies and regulations. For the first time, this unexploited sector has received elaborate and fair treatment in the NDCP.

Public Wi-Fi

The fastest way to scale initial internet access is through public Wi-Fi hotspots. One hotspot in India currently serves a whopping 37,500 people, while in the US, there is one for every 2,000 people, South Africa has one for every 3,500 people and Nigeria has one for every 13,800 people. India’s goal is to grow to 10 million hotspots in the next five years. If India does not take the giant leap of digital progress, it risks being left behind in the global digital race.

E and V bands

Alternative and cost-effective technologies are the only solution to build an inclusive Digital India. E and V band technologies are being rolled out world over to build high-capacity broadband networks in both urban and rural areas.

Other key factors

The proliferation of broadband services to every nook and corner of the country will depend on the availability of content and data apps in vernacular languages, which can benefit the youth to enhance their capabilities and earnings as well as take health, agriculture, education and other government and social services to the entire country, for a truly inclusive society.

(The author is an Honorary Fellow of IET [London]. The views expressed here are his personal views. The article includes research inputs by Garima Kapoor and Abhijit Panicker.)

 
 
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