T.V. Ramachandran, President, Broadband India Forum

India is riding high on the digital wave today. Our average per capita mobile data consumption is almost 12 GB per month, primarily driven by the usage of video, gaming and conferencing apps. The Covid-19 pandemic added significantly to the uptake of data and broadband services, clearly underlining the significance of digital connectivity in modern life. The new work-from-home/anywhere rules adopted to ensure continuity of business further provided a progressive fillip to the Digital India mission.

Given that we have a population of 1.3 billion and approximately 735 million broadband connections (the majority being mobile broadband) – with unique subscribers being even fewer, due to multiple connections owned by individuals,- there is immense scope and potential for further and crucial growth of broadband connectivity in the country. Apart from the fact that the overall broadband penetration levels in India are still significantly below the global level, predominance of these connections is on mobile networks, where quality of experience levels require immense improvement. Not only is greater penetration the need of the hour, but also gearing up to meet the digital expectations of the people by improving speed and throughput is important.

As we look forward to 2021, some of the key areas to be prioritised for enhancing the broadband quotient of the country would be: leveraging the PM-WANI Public Wi-Fi Policy, setting reasonable reserve prices for spectrum allocated via auctions, actioning 5G deployments, provisioning the use of E and V bands, finalisation and implementation of the spacecom/satcom policies, focus on in-building solutions, increasing manufacturing prowess, and rationalisation of duties/levies for the viability and sustainability of telecom services.

The PM-WANI policy is a historic step taken by the government. It envisages the creation of 10 million public data creation centres, as per the National Digital Communications Policy 2018, which will serve as huge data generation/consumption points and help offload mobile data capacity requirements, thereby helping deliver better quality of experience and higher broadband speeds. This will proliferate across the country, propelling socio-economic growth by providing employment opportunities to small, local and village-level entrepreneurs, besides driving inclusion and rural digital connectivity. Even if each hotspot can enable two to three direct/ indirect employment opportunities, the creation of 10 million hotspots could potentially generate 20-30 million job opportunities, providing some relief in this Covid-affected scenario. At the public data office (PDO), PDO aggregator (PDOA) and app provider level, this would encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, while also helping attract valuable investments in the sector. Moreover, in the present work-from-anywhere scenario, the creation and availability of millions of public Wi-Fi hotspots will help facilitate remote working for multitudes of citizens.

PM WANI will also necessitate the growth and development of the manufacturing and supply chain sectors for producing indigenous Wi-Fi equipment to cater to millions of hotspots, providing a massive impetus to our national mission of Atmanirbhar Bharat.

Moreover, with Wi-Fi 6E certifications having been commenced by the Wi-Fi Alliance, next-generation Wi-Fi 6 technology is expected to enter the market soon, and would synergise with the PM WANI model, to offer faster speeds of up to 10 Gbps, increase overall capacity and reduce congestion at Wi-Fi hotspots. To enable the same, additional unlicensed spectrum in 6 GHz, V band and other bands, would be extremely useful.

The release of 1200 MHz spectrum by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the 6 GHz band sets a good example for India, as replicating the same will usher in technologies such as Wi-Fi 6, which will offer better performance for every MHz of spectrum. Opening the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use will also increase the amount of spectrum availability for Wi-Fi by nearly a factor of five, and help improve rural broadband connectivity. With room for seven new 160 MHz channels, the 6 GHz band could potentially serve as a multi-lane superhighway for the latest Wi-Fi devices, all of them using Wi-Fi 6. In a country like India, Wi-Fi 6 can complement 5G by providing high speed and high capacity broadband services to both urban and rural areas.

Utilising the latest and most efficient technologies such as 5G to provide widespread and affordable broadband services is imperative for the nation’s progress. It is, therefore, critical that spectrum is made available at rational and reasonable reserve prices for auctions. As most of the operators’ debt is on account of spectrum, lack of affordable spectrum will result in a loss of business viability, as they would not be able to offer affordable and quality 5G services. The spectrum pricing methodology and auction design aspects need to be relooked at and revised, so as to facilitate full market participation and optimal use of resources.

As per the GSA, there were already 85 live 5G networks and 300 devices available globally by mid-December 2020, while 412 operators in 131 countries/territories were investing in 5G. If India plans to catch up with its global peers, the auction for 5G spectrum should be held positively in 2021, and network roll-outs should follow soon. Further, delays in 5G deployment will deprive India of the large opportunities and benefits that the technology offers.

Meanwhile, captive private 5G wireless networks could possibly be deployed for enterprise/academic use, as is being done by many countries such as the US, the UK, Germany, France, Belgium, Japan, Poland, Norway, Sweden and Chile. Enhancement in the scope of IP-1s in line with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) recommendations would also enable acceleration in the deployment of digital infrastructure for 5G readiness. Besides, a policy and regulatory mechanism to cater to the creation of small cells to ramp up indoor usage and use of street furniture needs to be put in place for 5G preparedness. These are important areas to be explored from a policy perspective.

Another area of immediate priority for India is the prudent use of E and V band spectrum, in line with global best practices, as recommended by TRAI. Also known as wireless fibre, these bands are an efficient and practical solution for providing connectivity in dense/congested urban areas, where fibre deployment is challenging/ unfeasible. Additionally, V band can be used for high capacity data transmissions in the last mile, via unlicensed spectrum.

Over 70 countries across the world have already opened up the V band for delicensed usage, including progressive countries such as the US, the UK, Australia, Korea, Japan, South Africa and Sweden. Delicensing of the V band would spur a spate of innovations in the use of short range devices, besides lending itself to the creation of tens of thousands of public Wi-Fi hotspots across the country in a ubiquitous and affordable manner, thereby boosting the government’s PM-WANI Public Wi-Fi Policy and the national mission of Atmanirbhar Bharat.

With the positive development of India’s space sector being liberalised, we expect an increased use of satcom for quality broadband penetration and outreach to more difficult and inaccessible terrains of the country, in a more cost-effective manner. Broadband through new and advanced satellite technologies such as low earth orbit/medium earth orbit (LEOs/MEOs) also offers substantially more capacity, which is required to take care of the humongous data demand arising from new technologies and applications. The finalisation of spacecom and satcom policies in this regard will drive increased privatisation, liberalisation and innovation, which is definitely the need of the hour.

Going forward, provision of in-building solutions (IBS) should also be mandated in central/state governments, lands and buildings and new establishments. The increase in the use of Wi-Fi and solutions as a part of network densification will generate potential infrastructure demand for fibre backhaul. Wired broadband will get an impetus as more people will subscribe to fixed broadband for their homes, owing to better speeds and reliability.

The production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme under the government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative is expected to boost manufacturing and exports in the sector. The generous incentives should pave the way for local manufacturing of 5G equipment, Wi-Fi routers and next-generation internet of things devices in a cost-effective manner, helping India leverage its geopolitical advantage and emerge as a global manufacturing hub and supply chain for network products.

Broadband connectivity is the underlying backbone for catering to the rapid and consistently rising demand for digital services across all topographic, geographic, demographic and socio-economic strata of the country. The same can only be delivered by developing and using a robust digital infrastructure, consisting of essential components such as fibre, towers, spectrum, satellite communications and public Wi-Fi. A prudent, proportionate and equitable interplay of these technologies would be crucial to address our digital infrastructure needs in an efficient and holistic manner, to help realise the vision of “Broadband for All”.