Telecom and defence ministries have to cooperate
Given how getting more spectrum from the defence ministry, as our lead story points out today, is vital to meet this year’s budget targets, the government needs to do its utmost to make this happen. A sizeable chunk of the revenue, R17,000 crore or thereabouts, can come only if defence swaps and makes available 15 MHz of 3G or 2100 MHz spectrum. In the 1800 MHz band, similarly, since the defence forces are using spectrum reserved for commercial use, and vice versa, you have two problems. First, as telcos like Bharti and Vodafone have pointed out, they have still not been allotted the spectrum they won in an auction around 8 months ago. Two, with the spectrum quite fragmented, telcos aren’t getting large enough chunks of contiguous spectrum – this makes it unsuitable for providing data services and so lowers its commercial value.
The key to fixing this is to cooperate with the defence ministry to get more spectrum released and to, in some cases, swap it for commercially valuable spectrum. And it is for this reason that, way back in 2009, the telecom and defence ministries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on releasing spectrum. The defence ministry was open to releasing more spectrum but, naturally enough, it wanted a dedicated communication network of its own and wanted certain spectrum bands to be reserved for it alone. Sadly, the MoU targets have not been met while, in good faith, the defence ministry has consistently been releasing chunks of commercially valuable spectrum. It now appears, however, that this cooperation can’t be stretched for too much longer.
Instead of giving out the dedicated optical fibre network to the private sector to build, the telecom ministry gave this to PSUs and, as a result, instead of the network being ready by mid-2012, it is already two years behind schedule. In addition, while the telecom ministry agreed that a defence band and a defence interest zone would be promulgated by July 2009—that is more than 5 years ago—there has been little progress on it so far. Though there was another agreement in 2011 to release even more spectrum, matters have deteriorated since. While the defence ministry has released more spectrum, there has been no harmonisation of spectrum bands. In the 1800 MHz band, for instance, a chunk of 55 MHz was reserved for commercial users and 20 MHz for the defence forces—yet, the defence forces are using spectrum meant for commercial users and vice versa. And no attempt has been made to get the commercial users to vacate the spectrum even though telcos have submitted plans to do so. If need be, a special task force comprising defence and telecom ministry officials needs to be created to come up with a solution since the delays are costing the nation dearly.