The story of broadband evolution in India is a long and continuing saga. India had its first broadband policy as early as 2004 and its first auction for broadband spectrum in 2010, but the first real entry into the broadband space only happened around end 2016, with the introduction of 4G networks in the country. India has not looked back since then and has been constantly trying to improve its broadband status in terms of penetration, quality and availability of rich content and applications. However, while most of India’s peer nations have gone aggressively ahead, we still have much progress to make.
Recognised in the 2004 policy itself, ubiquitous broadband is absolutely essential to modern-day existence. Whether it is for work productivity, healthcare, agriculture, education or for just normal social interaction, we need high-speed broadband. Mere net connectivity is no longer enough for a large country like India. In this scenario, the greatest availability is of mobile broadband; other forms of broadband such as fixed broadband, satellite broadband and Wi-Fi broadband are all at a very low level, far below international norms. Over the years, Indian broadband has been continuously evolving, but in a somewhat lopsided manner, with 97 per cent or more of the connections being on mobile. Today, there are about 800 million broadband connections, but active internet users are only about 692 million (IAMAI – KANTAR, July 2022) and of these, the number of broadband users would be lower and unique subscribers even fewer – probably below 500 million in a population of 1.4 billion.
In terms of global position, India’s ranking on the basis of median mobile speeds – the key broadband quality indicator – has improved now to 113 with a speed of 16.50 Mbps (Ookla, October 2022). Countries such as Norway, the UAE and Qatar registered an average median speed in excess of 120 Mbps and are among the fastest in the world. It should also be noted that we have much scope for improvement in terms of penetration. While in sheer number of connections we are at the global second position after China, one cannot be complacent on this because in terms of population penetration, we are at less than 50 per cent, whereas our global peers are at 65 per cent or more, going up to even about 90 per cent.
The year 2022 represents a milestone in India’s journey on the broadband highway. Although India entered the 5G scene over two years behind others, it has amazed all with the speed of its roll-out. 5G has been launched in over 100 cities and towns in just 100 days! Operators are targeting to cover such a large country as ours by end 2023 or early 2024. Apart from the 5G roll-out, a major digital thrust happened during this year, through a number of policy initiatives taken by the government, including allocation of 5G spectrum and launch of 5G networks, issuance of Right-of-Way (RoW) Rules and inclusion of small cells and street furnitures to facilitate the required heavy densification of 5G roll-out across the country. In addition, the great strides made to improve ease of doing business have truly helped in enabling the digital roll-outs. A shining example of this was the remarkable efficiency with which the 5G spectrum was physically allocated to the players on the same day of payment of the required amount. We have not seen a parallel to this in Indian business at any time in the past. However, although 5G holds great promise for the enterprise and non-consumer segment, there are now strong indications that for personal users it holds little “wow factor”. Findings from the LocalCircles National Survey reveal that up to 61 per cent 5G users have witnessed either no improvement or a worsening of call quality and that even on data, only 49 per cent find 5G speeds faster, but still below expectations.
On our broadband quality position, even our 4G mobile speeds are only about half to one-fourth of global norms and we experience significant buffering and other unsatisfactory features, while using video and data-rich services. It is well accepted by most persons concerned that we have a big shortage of support infrastructure such as adequate intra- and intercity fibre connectivity, enough towers, small cells, fiberisation of towers, etc. The government is to be lauded for the focused manner in which it is attempting to resolve decades-old, formidable challenges on several fronts to assist operators in the creation of additional infrastructure in these areas. However, in view of the Herculean efforts involved, results may not appear soon.
A second major but less-known reason for the quality deficiency is the fact that we have neither adequate download nor upload capacity from mobile networks, nor do we have consistency from these networks. These seem inevitable when considering the radio frequency (RF) engineering aspects involved. Probing further, one sees that while the government has given a fair amount of 4G spectrum to operators and therefore inadequate spectrum is not the cause of speed deficiency/inefficiency, there is a very serious shortage of public Wi-Fi hotspots to enable the common man to use broadband in an efficient and affordable manner. Of course, operators have their own closed Wi-Fi networks, which are only meant for their subscribers; obviously, this would not meet the requirements of the overall general capacity for broadband.
India has less than 1 per cent of the penetration of public Wi-Fi hotspots that the rest of the world has. Plenty of public Wi-Fi is essential to take the excess load off mobile networks so that the desired consistency and quality are realised on those. In our journey of broadband evolution, we need to address this shortcoming expeditiously or else we will be sliding further back relative to our global peers. Apart from the penetration aspect, we need to acquire far more delicensed spectrum, comparable to our peers, and equally importantly, proliferate the Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) for all the hotspots to achieve ease of use and connectivity in various hotspots.
We need to also appreciate that the next-generation Wi-Fi technologies, Wi-Fi 6e and Wi-Fi 7, have a greater role to play in the evolving broadband ecosystem. These would be a close match for 5G in terms of speed and latency and would offer excellent broadband options for more price-conscious rural markets.
The third important factor in the Indian broadband evolution is the introduction and deployment of satellite broadband in an expeditious manner. A comparison with other major economies is given below.
While roll-outs of terrestrial broadband networks pose enormous delays and difficulties due to elaborate RoW clearances and high costs, in the available scenario of modern satellite technologies and practices, it is practically possible to roll out affordable satellite broadband of good quality to remote and rural areas almost “on tap”. It should also be noted that there is significant satellite bandwidth from approved international satellites going unused over Indian skies. With the laudable initiatives of both the Department of Space and the Department of Telecommunications that have been ongoing for several months now, it should be possible to speedily realise this important potential of satellite broadband for the benefit of unserved and underserved sections of the country, and help attain the national goal of Broadband for All. (The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author.)