Millennium Post

India’s last-mile challenge

It is an unpalatable truth for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The government still does not have a coherent plan on how it’s going to pipe in high-speed internet broadband connectivity to every single house. The truth no doubt has a bitter taste. The Digital India initiative is looking towards the national optical fibre network (NOFN) to provide greater internet connectivity for all villages.

The NOFN was specifically tasked by the UPA regime in 2011 of connecting 2,50,000 village panchayats with a fibre optic network in the first phase, and then extending it to 3,90,000 village panchayats. The project, for a few justifiable and several unjustifiable reasons, has been delayed and now it is been said that the first phase will be completed only by the end of 2016. There is no clear horizon for the second phase. It must be mentioned that India has 6,40,000 villages and only 13 per cent of India’s population is connected to the internet. Of this, less than 10 crore users are in rural areas. The broadband reach is even lower with only 7 crore subscribers across the country in July 2014, with over 80 per cent of them residing in urban areas.

Each stakeholder has reasons for not playing their part to perfection. Telecom service providers (TSPs) and internet service providers (ISPs) bemoan the lack of a viable business model in rural areas. The government complains about the lack of interest from market players for all their efforts and initiative in creating hard infrastructure. Meanwhile regulators and the government cannot seem to agree on fundamental policy issues from norms on speed and pricing to spectrum regulatory frameworks. This has been a recurring story every time a push is sought to spread out the digital network in India. This kind of network, however, is required in India to create a framework for electronic and mobile governance services and boosting digital transaction and commerce ecosystem. Yet, the fibre optic network does not lay out a clear pathway or a guarantee that every single house will get quality internet connection; a connection that today does not have to necessarily depend on either the NOFN or the conventional internet delivery ecosystem of the TSPs and ISPs.
Alternative technologies can be two steps forward
It is in this context that the Modi-led government needs to look at some of the alternative technologies on offer, not only from the likes of Microsoft, Facebook and Google -- companies with a clear-cut profit motive -- but also from institutions as diverse as the Indian Institutes of Technology to C-DAC that have the potential to resolve the seemingly intractable last-mile challenge. In the past few months, founders and CEOs of several companies have visited India and met either Modi or Communications and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and showed their willingness to work on the Digital India programme.

The aggressive promotion of last mile connectivity by these companies is about ‘increasing the size of cake’, a senior official with Microsoft India noted. “The more people start using computer and internet the larger will be the consumer base for these companies,” he said.  

On his recent visit to India Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had shown his company’s willingness to help deploy the White-Fi technology to provide high-quality internet connection (16 mbps) to every single house. The core proposition of the technology has been in existence for some time, and uses the unused television frequencies to provide internet connectivity directly to a household. The digitisation of television transmission, combined with better compression techniques, satellite transmission and set-top boxes have freed up some space in existing frequencies in India. White-Fi has the ability to use free space in existing frequencies as well utilise any UHF band. The software giant does not own intellectual property rights on this technology. The company, however, is helping IIIT Bangalore with rolling out prototypes and experiments.

Similarly, Google is working on Project Loon, which aims to provide internet in remote areas through high altitude balloons. Vinton G Cerf, chief internet evangelist, Google, on his Delhi visit in January, said it is still being worked out at the laboratory level. Facebook, on the other hand, is taking two different approaches. The first initiative is called, whereby it is actively engaging with developers and coders to create extremely light applications and services that can be delivered on all forms of mobile phones and in low connectivity areas. The second approach – officially unconfirmed but apparently suggested by Mark Zuckerberg – is to provide internet to villages with the help of drones.

White-Fi and the great hope
 The most promising alternative technology, both in terms of practicality and operational possibility, is White-Fi. If ongoing experiments succeed, India would cover a long way in bringing internet closer to its billion plus population, even as existing service providers continue to weigh the pros and cons of investing in rural areas. In India, as is the case with other countries, huge tract of spectrum band is lying unused with the state broadcaster Doordarshan.

Institutions including IIT Bombay and IIT Madras have also been working on this technology for a few years. The 400 Mhz band in our country is allocated to TV. But there are no private TV channels, which broadcast in this band. This spectrum is used by only two Doordarshan channels – DD 1 and DD 2.  Out of 400 Mhz only 16 Mhz is required by these two channels. It is primarily this unused bandwidth that the proponents of White-Fi are eyeing. The equipment which enables this comes in a size equal to a VCR box, with a 15-foot mast attached to it. For transmission, this box is connected with the broadband cable at the village panchayat.

At the point of reception, there is a small conversion device at the gram panchayat, which would convert the broadcasting frequency to 2.4 gigahertz, which is used for Wi-Fi. Once it is converted, Wi-Fi zones can be created in villages. Abhay Karandikar of the department of electrical engineering in IIT Mumbai has been working on this technology for a couple of years. He piloted it at IIT Mumbai and found encouraging results. He has sought an experimental license from the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) for piloting it in Palgarh district of Maharashtra. Though he applied for the licence in May 2014, the DoT is yet to respond. “The spectrum, available in 470 and 590 Mhz, has better propagation capacity. It covers a larger radius, up to five kilometres. After Palgarh, we want to pilot it in Ajmer using the NOFN connectivity,” he said. The IIT professor has taken the help of a Bengaluru-based start up Sankhya Lab to develop the equipment for transmitting radio waves. Currently one box costs Rs 5,00,000. “The price, however, will come down to Rs 50,000 per unit if made in large scale,” Karandikar said.  Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT Madras suggests that the manufacturing of these boxes could be done locally and can be linked to the government’s ‘Make in India’ campaign.

Spectrum deregulation

However, there is a catch. The white space technology would bring down the cost of providing internet only when the government does not charge a licence fee from service providers. At present, telecom companies pay an eight per cent licence fee on spectrum. “As of now the major expense for a telcos is on spectrum and managing the backhaul. The opening of TV band could reduce telcos’ cost of providing internet,” said Karandikar.

Mahesh Uppal, a senior consultant dealing with telecom regulation, said there is a need for revamping the licensing regime in order to provide affordable internet in rural areas. “The government will have to deregulate the spectrum if it wants to deliver internet to the last mile,” he said. “The government looks at spectrum as a cash cow. But this (broadband services) is something for the rural masses. The spectrum allocated to TV should be allowed to be used for transmitting broadband on a licence-free basis in order to drive down cost access,” added a Microsoft official. “Mobile telephony was successful because it was cost effective for consumers. Licensing fee has a cascading impact,” said Rajesh Charia, chairman, ISPAI. A senior official with DoT said the department is open for a pilot project on White-Fi, though a final decision on it would be taken only after it is established that internet transmission would not interfere with broadcasting. “As of now it is a theoretical situation.”

Deregulating and opening up the TV band requires harmonisation with international regulations, including that of international telecommunications union (ITU), said Rajan S Mathews, who is the director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). Giving band for free, however, will distort level playing field between Indian service providers and internet giants like Google and Facebook that don’t pay taxes to the government on their revenues. Experts, however, believe that if all experiments with White-Fi go well and the government allows usage of TV spectrum band for quality last-mile internet could be provided at low prices.  GOVERNANCE NOW
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