Access to secure, reliable and affordable high speed broadband services has become a priority for India especially after the onset of Covid-19. This increased demand for broadband requires stakeholders to follow a specific roadmap that enables infrastructure creation, fiberisation and densification of networks in order to proliferate high speed broadband services across the country. With this aim, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recently released its recommendations on the “Roadmap to Promote Broadband Connectivity and Enhanced Broadband Speed”.
These recommendations are based on stakeholder discussions on TRAI’s consultation paper on broadband, issued in August 2020, as well as a supplementary consultation paper, issued in May 2021. As per TRAI, the policy measures suggested in these recommendations are closely linked with one another and, therefore, a coordinated and integrated approach is required for their implementation.
A look at TRAI’s key recommendations…
Defining broadband and its speed-based categorisation
The prevailing definition of broadband, as notified by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) on July 18, 2013, is: “A data connection that is able to support interactive services including internet access and has the capability to offer minimum download speed of 512 kbps to an individual subscriber from the point of presence (PoP) of the service provider intending to provide the broadband service”. Therefore, India follows a speed-linked common definition for fixed and mobile broadband, both with a threshold download speed of 512 kbps.
However, TRAI believes that there has been a major transformation in technology, the consumption of data as well as availability of throughput and applications since 2013, when the extant broadband definition was adopted. In this regard, TRAI believes that there is a need to revise the threshold download speed of data connection from the existing 512 kbps to qualify as broadband.
As per TRAI, before suggesting a threshold download speed, its affordability, ability to allow access to common applications comparable with global norms and speed requirement must be taken into account. Based on these factors, TRAI suggests an upward revision of the threshold download speed to 2 Mbps in the broadband definition. Therefore, it recommends that broadband be defined as “a data connection that is able to support interactive services including internet access and has capability of delivering a minimum download speed of 2 Mbps to an individual subscriber from the point of presence of the service provider intending to provide broadband service”.
Moreover, TRAI recommends the following categorisation for fixed broadband:
• Basic broadband – A broadband connection having capability of delivering download speed equal to or greater than 2 Mbps and less than 50 Mbps to an individual subscriber.
• Fast broadband – A broadband connection having capability of delivering download speed equal to or greater than 50 Mbps and less than 300 Mbps to an individual subscriber.
• Superfast broadband – A broadband connection having capability of delivering download speed equal to or greater than 300 Mbps to an individual subscriber.
Broadband proliferation issues
The key challenges faced in terms of scaling up the presence of broadband networks in India include the limited involvement of cable operators as well as low level of infrastructure sharing. The sheer reach of cable networks to a large number of households renders this infrastructure both amenable and ideally suited for delivery of broadband to a large segment of the population very quickly. In this regard, TRAI recommends that issues relating to the computation of adjusted gross revenue (AGR) for cable operators, registered under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, for providing broadband services be addressed on priority.
In terms of infrastructure sharing, DoT amended the terms and conditions of internet service provider (ISP) licences in March 2021 and permitted the sharing of active infrastructure amongst service providers based on mutual agreements. However, contrary to TRAI’s recommendations, dated March 9, 2017, it appears that permission to share active infrastructure amongst service providers has inadvertently got limited to backhaul and Wi-Fi equipment. Therefore, TRAI has reiterated its earlier recommendation issued in the context of “Proliferation of Broadband through Public Wi-Fi networks” in March 2017 that similar to access service authorisation, passive as well as active infrastructure sharing should be allowed under the internet service licence, and internet service authorisation under the unified licence (UL) and UL (VNO) licence.
Broadband speed enhancement
Another key issue hampering the widespread proliferation of broadband is that the average access spectrum holding per operator in India is not at par with that in other countries in the world. For instance, the average access spectrum holding per operator in different licensed service areas (LSAs) is in the range of 62 MHz to 81 MHz, which is much lower as compared to many other countries in the world.
In this regard, TRAI recommends that the entire spectrum allocated for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) purposes be assigned as per the established procedures on a regular basis. Further, an annual calendar to offer the available IMT spectrum for assignment to service providers should be published in advance for this purpose.
Further, in rural areas the dependence on mobile broadband is much higher due to negligible proliferation of fixed line broadband. Considering this, TRAI recommends using BharatNet’s optical fibre network with service level agreements (SLA), which can be made available to service providers for fiberisation of backhaul networks. This would help in enhancing mobile broadband speed in rural and remote areas. TRAI also recommends assigning radio spectrum for backhauling purpose to service providers on demand and in a time-bound manner to overcome capacity constraints in the backhaul connectivity of cellular networks. Additionally, TRAI recommends expediting auction of available mid-band spectrum, that is, 3300 MHz to 3600 MHz to sustain the pace of investment in cellular networks and, in turn, support enhancement of mobile broadband speed.
Innovative approaches for infrastructure creation
In its recommendations, TRAI has suggested some measures to overcome challenges associated with right of way (RoW). RoW permissions are required for establishment and maintenance of underground and overground utility infrastructure by all types of utility service providers with: such as telegraph, electricity, water, gas, etc. At present, such permissions are regulated under different laws, rules and regulations, which leads to cost-inefficient and delayed establishment of utility infrastructure. To overcome all these inefficiencies, TRAI recommends that the government should first come out with the National RoW Policy and subsequently enact a model law for RoW permissions which should be adopted by all appropriate authorities.
In order to streamline RoW permission processes and to facilitate the establishment of a single-window electronic process (online) for RoW permission applications, TRAI recommends that the government should develop a web-based national portal with role-based workflow.
Stakeholders believe that the establishment of common ducts, sharable on a non-discriminatory basis, for establishing optical fibre cable (OFC), is vital to expedite the proliferation of fixed line broadband and fiberisation of backhaul connectivity of cellular networks. In this regard, TRAI recommends that the government should incentivise the establishment of common ducts and posts, to be shared on a non-discriminatory basis. Since delays in RoW permissions and the exorbitant cost of RoW are key stumbling blocks in the creation of robust digital communications infrastructure, TRAI recommends formulation of a centrally sponsored scheme to incentivise states/UTs for RoW reforms. The quantum of incentive for a state/UT should be linked to net improvement in the broadband readiness index score of that state/UT.
In a bid to increase infrastructure providers’ role in broadband proliferation, TRAI reiterates that its earlier recommendations on “Enhancement of Scope of IP-I Registration”, issued in March 2020, should be implemented at the earliest.
Incentives for proliferation of fixed line broadband
Since fixed line networks can provide higher speeds and reliability in comparison to mobile services, TRAI has recommended key incentives to increase their proliferation. For one, it recommends providing incentives to internet service and access service licensees who are authorised to provide fixed line broadband services to individual customers. As per TRAI, the incentive for eligible licensees should be given in the form of licence fee exemption on the total revenue.
Further, to incentivise the initial investment in the last-mile linkage network by cable operators, TRAI recommends that the government should notify an interest subvention scheme for cable operators registered as micro and small enterprises. Another key recommendation is the launch of a pilot direct benefit transfer (DBT) scheme in those places in rural areas where adequate fixed line broadband capacity is available but there is a lack of demand for fixed line broadband. As per the regulator, the specifics of the DBT scheme, such as eligibility criteria for beneficiaries, reimbursement amount, and period of the scheme, should be worked out after ascertaining the practicability of the pilot DBT project in accelerating the growth of fixed line broadband services. s
By Kuhu Singh Abbhi