The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for reliable broadband connectivity like never before, with the government, private enterprises and the general public becoming heavily reliant on it for their day-to-day operations. In this scenario, it is important for the government to ensure ubiquitous coverage of broadband services. The government and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) have been focusing on improving broadband connectivity in the country since 2004, but a lot more needs to be done.
At present, fixed broadband penetration in India stands at a meagre 7.6 per 100 households, while wireless penetration stands at 50.35 per 100 inhabitants. Through the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018, the government has identified several strategies to improve the penetration and performance of broadband networks. However, these are yet to be converted into actionable points.
In this context, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) asked TRAI for its recommendations on defining different categories of broadband services and speeds as well as on creating a roadmap to achieve the NDCP, 2018 objective of 50 Mbps broadband speed. In line with this, TRAI recently released a consultation paper on the “Roadmap to Promote Broadband Connectivity and Enhanced Broadband Speed”, wherein it seeks stakeholders’ inputs on defining fixed and mobile broadband, promoting broadband connectivity, outlining innovative approaches for infrastructure creation and undertaking measures for enhancing broadband speeds. The stakeholders’ comments and counter-comments on the paper are to be submitted by September 21, 2020 and October 5, 2020 respectively.
Definition of broadband in India
In many countries, including India, broadband is defined in terms of speed. DoT defines broadband as “a data connection that is able to support interactive services including internet access and has the capability of a minimum download speed of 512 kbps to an individual subscriber from the point of presence (PoP) of the service provider intending to provide broadband service”.
Broadband does not necessarily provide the same upload and download speeds. Generally, download speeds are much higher than upload speeds. Such asymmetric broadband services were originally designed keeping in view the requirements of web browsing and video streaming, the two most popular early use cases of broadband. Thus, broadband used to be defined only in terms of service speed.
In recent years, however, with the increasing use of peer-to-peer applications such as social media and videoconferencing, the significance of upload speed has come to the forefront. Also, with different last-mile media being used for service delivery, such as mobile and fixed broadband, their characteristics must be considered while defining broadband. Fixed broadband, being non-rivalrous, can ensure the delivery of a minimum guaranteed speed, but this may not be possible for mobile broadband, which is a shared access medium.
In view of these issues, TRAI has solicited comments from stakeholders on whether the existing definition of broadband should be reviewed. Some of the questions to be considered are: Should fixed and mobile broadband have separate definitions? Should the definition be based on threshold download speed alone, or should it include upload speed as well?
Promoting connectivity and access
Currently, mobile broadband has significantly better availability and accessibility than fixed broadband in India. Despite this, approximately 40 per cent of mobile subscribers still do not access data services. TRAI has asked stakeholders to list the probable reasons for this scenario, and suggest policy and regulatory measures to facilitate an increase in mobile broadband penetration.
Fixed broadband significantly outperforms mobile broadband when it comes to reliability, speed, and cost per GB of data consumption. Despite this, the subscription rate for fixed broadband is poor in India. To this end, TRAI has asked stakeholders for their views on the factors attributable to the slower growth of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) subscribers in India and what policy measures should be taken to improve the availability and affordability of fixed broadband services. It has also asked for reasons that are holding back local cable operators (LCOs) from providing broadband services and the possible policy and regulatory measures that could facilitate the delivery of such services through existing hybrid fibre coaxial (HFC) networks.
Approaches for infrastructure creation
Despite the rapid growth in mobile broadband subscribers over the past three to four years, India continues to lag significantly behind other similarly placed countries in terms of both average speed and broadband penetration. A major factor behind this is the lack of digital communication infrastructure in the country.
The key element of digital infrastructure required to scale up broadband presence is optical fibre cable (OFC). To enable speedy roll-out of OFC infrastructure, the government notified the Right of Way [RoW] Rules, 2016. However, after more than three years of the notification of the RoW rules, it is still unclear whether they have succeeded in addressing the issues relating to the grant of RoW permissions. TRAI has, therefore, asked stakeholders their opinion on whether the RoW Rules have enabled the grant of RoW permissions in a timely, non-discriminatory manner, at reasonable prices.
Developing common duct infrastructure for laying OFC could help ensure speedy roll-out of OFC networks in towns and cities as well as along state and national highways and railways. TRAI has thus asked stakeholders about the need for the same. It is also seeking opinion on how to encourage private entities to develop these ducts.
Cross-sector collaboration is another innovative idea for infrastructure creation. Such collaboration could happen either at the beginning of infrastructure development, or at a later stage, by leveraging the existing assets of other sectors. TRAI has asked stakeholders for inputs on this issue, as well as on the policy and regulatory support required to facilitate such cross-sector infrastructure sharing.
Measures for enhancing speed
Currently, India has average download speeds of 12.16 Mbps in the case of mobile broadband and around 38 Mbps in the case of fixed broadband. While the speeds have improved considerably over the past four to five years, they are still way below the global average of 34.67 Mbps and 78.26 Mbps respectively.
The performance of the core networks, which are generally common for fixed and mobile broadband, also needs to be improved. Among other factors that determine broadband speed, some are influenced by operators, such as network design and capacity, some by consumers, such as mobile devices and customer premises equipment, and some by external factors, such as content hosting and the link between the internet access network and the server. In this regard, TRAI has asked stakeholders the probable reasons for slower fixed broadband speeds, which largely depend on the core networks. It has also asked if there is a need for policy or regulatory intervention by way of mandating certain checks relating to contention ratio, latency and bandwidth utilisation in the core network, as well as relating to consumer devices.
As India aims to strengthen its position in the digital economy, it becomes imperative for the country to use broadband as a lever for growth. This is even more vital considering the various policy initiatives being taken by competing economies and the amount of investment and resources being committed by them towards high speed and reliable broadband proliferation. As India cannot afford to lose its strength as a knowledge-based economy, enhancing broadband coverage is important to ensure that it emerges as a front runner in terms of digital transformation.
By Kuhu Singh Abbhi