Broadband penetration in India is the biggest worry of the Government now. But the way, we are going ahead with all wireless technologies neglecting the wireline connectivity is not the right way, comments Col. K. K. Sharma. Cable TV networks could play important role if given the right impetus, he feels.
On December 04, 2009, while addressing a telecom conference organized by FICCI our Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh said that 25 lakh village panchayats would be connected with broadband by the end of 2012. At present India has a total teledensity of 20%. While towns and cities have over 100% tele density rural areas have less than 10%. Dr Singh said “We expect that access to broadband in rural areas will have multiple long term positive effects.”
We all know that broadband penetration is going to play a key role in an overall growth of economy. Today global economy thrives on information via Internet, on television or by voice communication. But India lags behind rest of the developed world miserably. We are ranked 107th in regards to Internet speed at an average of 895 kbps. According to a world report prepared by the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) for every 10% rise in broadband penetration, there is 1.3% rise in GDP.
Our broadband penetration and PC ownership is still very low, putting the IT sector at disadvantage as compared to developed markets like Korea, Japan, USA and the European countries.
We have been talking of increasing the broadband penetration since 1999 when the first telecom policy was made but today after ten years, we find that action on ground has not kept up with the vision on paper. By 2009 end, we have just 6.8 million broadband penetration against the projected 20 million. We have not learnt any lessons in the last ten years. Vested interests of world lobbies, corruption and inter organization rivalries in the telecom sector have ruined our prospects of becoming a world power. China has gone much ahead in the same period.
Dependence on private sector is also not wise because its first concern is to make profits for the owners, nation comes second. This has resulted in the low penetration of broadband in the rural areas in spite of the government providing so many incentives in terms of financial support from USO Fund, tax holidays and duty exemptions. They are going where the profits are, whether it is the big towns in the country or abroad.
We are giving too much emphasis on wireless rather than wireline, which is the ultimate infrastructure for broadband to meet the ever-growing needs of bandwidth by individual persons. Although wireless broadband could overcome infrastructure challenges, spectrum scarcity has always limited its progress. Then there is the rivalry between supporters of different technologies in the global markets, each lobbying the government for a preferential treatment as expressed in the EIU report. Wimax Forum has been lobbying in India since 2004 expressing hope that the technology would do wonders in the Indian scenario. We don't realize how much the situation has changed in these five years. In another five years the technology may even become redundant unable to support the bandwidth requirements.
We always talk of mobile revolution in India and want to replicate the same in broadband through wireless means like WiMax and 3G. We forget that the main reason behind mobile revolution was the pent up demand for voice connections on wired phones. There was a waiting period of two to three years to get a phone connection. Mobile gave a quick access to voice communication to all these people . This catapulted the need to communicate more supported by the TRAI's control on the prices, mobile communications shot northward in a short time. Providing broadband is a different task. Already spectrum allocation issues have posed a major problem. So far we can accommodate only three players.
If you ask me, we are still not going the right way for giving India a robust and future proof broadband infrastructure. We are going in only for short term solutions. We should not forget that the real information revolution was set in by thousands of small cable operators who within a short span of time since 1989 brought satellite television to millions of homes kindling the need in the masses to know more. This increased their hunger to communicate and helped the moble revolution.
The quick to establish mobile communications made us forget the wireline infrastructure and many private players slowed down in their pursuit for a nationwide fiberoptic network diverting their resources for mobile telephony and WLL. The wired last mile remained in a poor state. When the whole world was going in for fiber optic connectivity we focused on the quicker but temporary solutions using wireless means. It was quite understood when the private telecom companies took to that route because it gave them quick revenues. But what is not understood is the lack of vision on the part of the government to neglect the wireline infrastructure. Since the mobile revolution started, we are losing wireline connections. Last mile of BSNL and MTNL is one of the worst network that we have. This is an alarming issue which we are not realizing at this moment and continue to neglect the wireline technologies.
From the Army days, working for 23 years in the Corps of Signals, I remember we used wireless for quick establishment of communications while we build the landline routes or where the mobility was of prime importance. Robust landline communication network gave us security as well as capacity. India is an IT provider to the whole world but does not have the infrastructure to provide its services to its own people. Other countries are benefitting from our IT knowledge.
Another serious mistake our planners did was to neglect the cabled infrastructure of the cable television networks .We always talked about the mushrooming cable networks outdoing the telephone connectivity, In India in one tenth of the time. When cable TV started in early 90s, we had only 2% teledensity .Today in 20 years, Cable TV connects more than 90 million homes whereas wireline telephony reaches merely 37 million. Cable TV reaches rural India with 35 percent connectivity whereas teledensity is merely 13 percent. This is the state when there is no USO Funding, no tax holidays or duty cuts. Even the financial institutes shy away from funding these networks because government is neglecting them, giving an impression that they are not required.
Today cable operators lay HFC(Hybrid Fiber Co-axial) networks and may have laid more fiber optic cable in rural areas than the telecom operators. If we had made the Cable TV infrastructure as integral part of the national telecom infrastructure as envisaged in the telecom policy of 1999 and 2004, perhaps we would have been going ahead in our progress like Korea, Japan, Singapore and China. In the USA Comcast, world's largest cable network has the maximum high speed broadband connectivity. It is well known that HDTV experience on cable is much better than on telecom networks.
Even today we don't think of this. Neither the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting nor the Ministry of IT and Communications feels responsible to develop this infrastructure as a national property when it is well known that this HFC infrastructure is the best for broadband carriage today next only to FTTH. It is much easier and less expensive to convert an HFC network into a FTTH network rather than build a totally new last-mile infrastructure which the telecom companies are doing. Technology is available to create easy broadband access with triple play services on cable networks rather than telecom networks.
Whereas cable networks have been originally prepared for video telecom networks find it most difficult to carry the video.
Even the PM has agreed to provide a subsidy of Rs. 4500/- per broadband connection in the rural areas to BSNL to take the broadband penetration to 20 million by 2012. We could have achieved this at half the cost on Cable TV networks. In fact, government should integrate the telecom networks with Cable TV for this project as early as possible so that we see the real results. Otherwise, after two years we will again land up nowhere having spent crores of public funds as has been happening in the past. Spending money is not the solution but providing innovative ways of using technologies is. In Australia they are using the Ethernet-over-Glass technology to achieve this. China, where the cable networks are quite similar to India is using Ethernet-over-Coax technology for the last mile connectivity enabling triple play. The US uses mostly Docsis technology. Unfortunately we get too much influenced by the numerous international lobbies; WiMax, 3G, Telecom Equipment Manufacturers lobby, Mobile lobby and broadcasters lobby and the like which are busy to satisfy their vested business interest rather than find new ways.
Cable Networks not only provide a ready to use broadband network which can take the speeds from a mere 250 mbps of the existing telecom networks to Gigabits, but also provide a skilled force of two million people working in the field. These people are adept at laying and handling fiber-optic infrastructure and servicing the customer end. The network can be further improved and put underground for safety using schemes like NREGA. Telecom companies can build the backhaul and use last mile of cable networks for connectivity. If these networks have been carrying fifty to hundred video channels to the masses, they can as well carry a little more bandwidth for voice and Internet. Even Mr. Sam Pitroda, Chairman National Knowledge commission agrees that last mile connectivity is the weakest link in rural telecom connectivity. This will be the best way to go ahead to improve this while using the backhaul of Telecom Companies, Railways, GAIL etc.
Our immediate need is:
To recognize Cable Television networks as the national telecom infrastructure. Give cable operators little technical education and help them extend fiber-optic cables to the knowledge centers of the villages, which the government plans through the 'Bharat Nirman Common Service Centres' scheme.