Column : Towards spectrum famine: need for rethink [Financial Express (India)]
(Financial Express (India) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) The pooling of spectrum could offset its increasing scarcity
An interesting feature of mobile telecom networks is that the main resource for running these networks-spectrum-is the same everywhere, whether in New York or in Jhumri Telaiya. The main issue is how this resource is being used-a function of law, regulation, allocation, equipment and technology. Again, in the worldwide connected network, the laws of usage, allocation and regulation are similar in the long run, as also the equipment manufacturers, technologies and the standards-courtesy mostly the evolution of bodies like International Telecommunications Union to facilitate the running of this worldwide connected network, and the big manufacturers having enormous economies of scale while manufacturing for the same frequencies. The only difference in spectrum availability and network quality is dependent on how aggressively or quickly different countries reform/adopt to international standards/allocate spectrum.
To give an example, mobile/wireless technologies appeared in developed countries in the early 1980s. We debated their viability and did not adopt them in India till mid 1990s, and were left behind. Most countries appointed network regulators to deal with regulation and interconnection issues of the emerging multi-operator scenario on the network. We did not appoint regulators on emerged mobile networks till 1997, and moved slowly forward. Again, we were slow in assessing the impact of digitisation/convergence/unification on the network structure/regulations, and failed to grow. It was only when the government adopted unified access licence in November 2003 did the mobile network started growing fast. It then grew so fast that we overcame the rates of growth of even China, by three times, the fastest development in the world so far. Before 2003, India used to be a mobile network almost at the bottom of the league. By 2011, it almost reached the top.
With digitisation, the telecom, internet (or broadband) and broadcasting networks are becoming similar, if not the same. This requires that to take full advantage of converged technologies/digitisation, we either move to converged or to unified networks, like most countries have. A Converged Communication Law was finalised by the government with the help of a high powered committee headed by the eminent jurist Fali Nariman and introduced in Parliament in 2001, and later cleared by a parliamentary select committee headed by another eminent jurist and parliamentarian Somnath Chatterjee in 2004. It has, however, not become law yet. Subsequently, Trai recommended a unified licence in early 2005. It has also not become law yet. It is, however, encouraging that the National Telecom Policy of 2012 clearly states that unified licence would be introduced. If it is introduced, and some other measures taken as I will explain later, the Indian communications sector, which is today evaluated by broadband growth and not voice communication, can move forward quickly, like voice telephony grew in the last decade. Once converged/unified licences are introduced, separate network operators would run wireless/fixed lines, and different operators would run services of their choice and the consumer's choice on these lines. The government would then not be defining services that are run on the networks, and such allocation made by the technologists, entrepreneurs and the market would be more efficient; of course, subject to better and transparent regulations.
We were a network of 50 million fixed telecom and 5 million mobiles in India a decade ago. Today, we are a network of 30 million fixed and 900 million mobile lines (we were 950 million some months ago but are now going down). No other country in the world has such mismatch between fixed and mobile telecom lines. There are known problems of spectrum availability and pricing. Another mismatch is a very large number of subscribers on the cable TV/DTH network (150 million), in comparison to fixed telephone lines, leading to an issue whether such networks can be used as an alternative to carriers of broadband. The growth engine of economies today is broadband and not voice telephony. The way broadband has been designed in the world, it is mostly on fixed lines and not wireless. The reasons are obvious, wireless broadband is much slower, and has an enormous bandwidth problem, and also when the number of users is high, the shared bandwidth makes the operation inefficient. However, we have no choice, as traditional fixed lines in India are very few. It is only now with the evolution of 3G and LTE standards that wireless broadband is gaining acceptance. But again, the content and terminal equipment on broadband is mostly fixed line network compatible. In India, there was hardly any broadband a decade ago. Even today, we have reached 4 million subscribers, a target of 2004, and a density much below most countries in the world. Since we are hugely dependent on wireless broadband for growth, we hear complaints regarding spectrum availability. Since most of our voice travels wireless, the scarcity of spectrum has resulted in call drops and poor service. So is the case with wireless broadband. What do we do now We either increase the availability of spectrum, a very difficult process indeed, looking at conflicting and huge demands, or change to another regime/structure, which is far more efficient.
A number of interesting editorials have appeared in newspapers recently about pooled spectrum. The editorials have not fully explained the concept, and the advantages of pooled spectrum.
I read about the concept of pooled spectrum in a brilliant article in The Economist a decade ago, called "Freeing the airwaves. Should radio spectrum be treated as property, or as a common resource " (May 29, 2003). It discussed many interesting concepts of pooling and pricing of spectrum. But there was a problem then, as explained in the article, the concept of pooled spectrum was not fully workable then, as it led to a lot of noise and interference on the network. We knew that work was going on in laboratories and universities in the US and other countries to overcome the problem. As is common with brilliant communication technologists of this era, they have sorted out the problem today, and we can now move to pooled spectrum. Reports have been written and presented to the government in the US as late as in July, 2012, on how it can be done, and as I explained earlier in the article, if it can be done in the US network, it can be done in India also today. The rules of the game will need to be changed, which will ensure efficient utilisation of spectrum (empirical studies show increase in efficiency by 1,000 times) and viable pricing. The US report submitted to the president fully explains the methodology. I will deal with the concept, the US reports, and their applicability to India, in my next article tomorrow.
The author is former disinvestment secretary, power, and chairman, Trai
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