Dr P. D. Vaghela, chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)

Over the past few years, Wi-Fi and satcom technologies have been playing a bigger role in bridging India’s digital divide. Both the technologies are considered an optimal means for delivering affordable, quality and ubiquitous broadband in India to fulfil the aspirations of a digital economy. Dr P. D. Vaghela, chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), has talked about the emerging role of satcom and Wi-Fi services in shaping India’s digital trajectory at various recent industry events. Edited excerpts from his addresses…

Going digital

Digitalisation is transforming the way we work together. Telecom infrastructure and network form the backbone for achieving digitalisation. India has adopted digitalisation in almost every aspect, be it healthcare, finance, financial services including online payment, education, online access, various sc­hemes and programmes, or delivery of se­veral services and benefits. The result will be more spectacular if the services reach one and all in both rural and urban areas.

Role of satcom in enhancing digital outreach

Satcom can help us reach every nook and corner of the country. Satellite communi­ca­tion has the capability of delive­ring es­sential telecom services to the remotest corner of the world. Its role in providing reliable service in cases of natural disasters is well accepted. Also, satellite systems are ubiquitous and can provide telecom and internet connectivity in the oceans, sky, hills, forests, islands and places almost in­accessible through terrestrial technologies. However, its capabilities are yet to be fully exploited in India.

Developing a satcom ecosystem

Satcom can help India in bridging the digital divide and achieving digital inclusion in areas not connected at present. The time has come for the regulator and the go­vernment to move very fast and come up with an ecosystem that allows India to become a major player in the field of satellite communications.

Further, a collective effort is required by all stakeholders across the satcom eco­system, that is, the government, regulator, start-ups and private players, to meet the national goals of Digital India and Broad­band for All. India has given a platform to Indian private entrepreneurs by opening up the space sector in its 75th year of independence. This step will energise the spa­ce sector and make India self-reliant and technologically advanced in this field.

TRAI initiatives

TRAI has been advocating for an open sky policy for many years. In 2004, we had re­commended that an open sky policy shou­ld be adopted for very small aperture terminal (VSAT) operators, and that service providers should be allowed to work di­rec­tly with any international satellite provi­der. We have again made this recommendation recently. This decision is yet to be taken. Further, we have given our in­puts on the draft spacecom policy. The po­licy aims to enable private entities to beco­me global players in the satellite commu­ni­­cation arena.

Rising investments in satcom

Satcom can also help augment new technologies and applications for a variety of services including disaster and emergency relief and rescue, besides playing a complementary role in providing backhaul in­fra­structure for next-generation networks, especially 5G.

The recent path-breaking investments in satellite technology could deliver a large amount of bandwidth to a smaller geogra­phical area by high throughput satellites or wider coverage with low latencies via low earth orbit (LEO) constellations. New technologies and innovations can help make broadband more affordable and acc­essible to public agencies, industries and citizens at large.

Evolving a broadband landscape

The internet is one of the most powerful engines of socio-economic growth. In In­dia, as well as elsewhere in the world, wire­less broadband is fuelling the growth of internet services.

The development of Indian broadband started moving forward in 2016, when 4G was proliferated on a massive scale. There has been no looking back since then. Data growth has risen from a mere 0.5 GB per user per month in 2016 to over 12 GB per user per month now, and is still growing.

The Indian appetite for data services appears to be insatiable. Despite having ov­er 700 million broadband connections, the potential for growth is still very high. I be­lieve that over 500 million people still ne­ed to be connected, especially in rural areas.

Wi-Fi as a means for proliferating broadband

Worldwide, public Wi-Fi has emerged as one of the most successful means of en­hancing broadband proliferation among the masses. For India, too, public Wi-Fi can be seen as a low-cost option for reaching un­served citizens. The Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) policy brings aspects of smooth roaming from one Wi-Fi access point to an­other, thereby promoting the use and growth of this broadband download facility.

It is a giant step towards providing Wi-Fi ubiquity in India through the creation of 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots, as en­vi­saged under the National Digital Com­muni­ca­tion Policy, 2018. This would not only help provide broadband to all, but will also create benefits such as direct and indirect em­p­loyment opportunities for millions of sm­all local entrepreneurs, as well as huge ec­o­nomic benefits from bro­ad­band use cases.

PM-WANI can fuel rapid internet in­clusion in rural areas, which will be transformative given the low level of penetration currently compared to urban areas. Wi-Fi linked to BharatNet fibre services can be the fastest route to bridging the ex­is­ting digital divide. The government has decided to opt for the public-private partnership mode so that BharatNet infrastructure can be commercialised to benefit more people.

5G and Wi-Fi

5G promises seamless speeds and connectivity capabilities. It represents a major step forward from current connectivity options. However, keeping in mind the aspects of mo­bile spectrum availability and network infrastructure constraints, we need to have a complementary Wi-Fi fra­me­work, in­clu­ding public Wi-Fi, to provide a powerful mechanism for downloading data traffic to a device. Going forward, the next-generation Wi-Fi6 will reinforce the need for a robust public Wi-Fi network in the country. This will help deliver extremely high ca­pacity, high speed and highly secure bro­adband services to the consumer.

Wi-Fi6 and 5G expand digitalisation op­p­ortunities across all industries. Con­ver­gence introduces a new era of wireless acc­ess and enables organisations to do business everywhere by increasing productivity and offering the best user experience.

Wi-Fi7 is also waiting in the wings, ready to enter by 2024. It is likely to inc­re­ase data download speeds to 30 Gbps and provide latencies of less than 1 millisecond. This would further help complement 5G technology and improve ov­er­all quality of service by taking care of significant high-value downloads.

Meeting backhaul requirements

That said, a key aspect of the growth of Wi-Fi hotspots is the requirement of backhaul infrastructure for the growing Wi-Fi traffic. Given that the deployment of fibre entails a lot of challenges, wireless backhaul could also be considered. Here, the liberalisation of backhaul spectrum by opening up the E and V bands would be of immense benefit. TRAI has already given recommendations in this regard to the government. It is also pertinent to consider the role that satellite communication can play in supporting Wi-Fi backhauling. TRAI has made suitable recommendations in this regard as well, for facilitating the use of reset-based networks for backhauling both cellular and Wi-Fi networks.

The way forward

India needs all the technology channels to achieve its digital ambitions. Our technology-neutral policy will serve as the prime catalyst for the required growth to deliver broadband for all and meet the requirement of an inclusive Digital India.