The guidelines announced last week on the broadband policy are unfortunate as they do little to enhance the country’s broadband capacity that, according to a CII position paper, can yield an additional benefit of around $100 billion over a period of ten years (duly discounted to reflect their current value) and can create 60 million jobs by 2020 through increased productivity in the economy and an increased usage of teleworking, e-governance and other such applications.
Indeed, data from various OECD countries show the contribution of information and communication technologies like broadband account for around a fourth of the hike in labour productivity.
While the telecom regulator TRAI’s recommendations were generally on the ball by taking all this into account, the government chose to ignore the crucial ones.
So, it refused to allow Internet operators to use MTNL/BSNL’s copper lines going into the homes of consumers. Nor did it allow the “open skies” policy advocated by TRAI—both would have reduced costs by around half at least.
With over 95 per cent of all copper wires going into people’s homes owned by either Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) or Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL), it is obvious this will largely determine the spread of broadband internet connectivity in the country. So, TRAI recommended that ISPs be allowed to access this, since the capital cost of using existing copper wires is substantially less than that of laying fresh fibre.
But, since BSNL was afraid of losing its monopoly, the department of telecom ruled in favour of protecting its narrow interests. Similarly, though it is well known that the Insat satellites don’t have spare capacity for Ku band transmission, which is the most efficient technology today, the government has not allowed users to directly book space on the 14–15 satellite operators who’ve got idle space of around four to five times of what Insat has, and offer space at a substantially lower price.
While all this is being done in the name of national security, it is interesting that Insat itself has leased three foreign transponders and has sub-leased them to users after charging a commission on the transaction!
How critical this is for India’s broadband to come of age can be seen from the fact that even in a country that is as densely wired up as the US, around a third of broadband is based on very small aperture terminals (V-Sat). In a country like India, with its huge distances, the scope can only be more.
How distorted the country’s broadband policy has been historically, of course, is best seen from the fact that till a couple of years ago, V-Sat operators in India were not allowed to transmit data at speeds greater than 64kbps!
This was later hiked to 512 kbps and it is only now, around 20 months later, that the TRAI recommendation that this be hiked to 2 Mbps has been accepted.
The only loser from policies designed to protect narrow sectional interests like those of BSNL is the consumer, and it is high time someone recognised this.