Saturday, 8 June 2013

Roll out of rural Broadband

Connecting 250000 Panchayats and 4500 Municipalities with Broadband on Cable TV networks.
Cable TV industry in India is existing for the last 25 years and has connected 100 million households in the country with 35% households in rural areas, Today there is hardly any inhabited place with electricity where cable operator does not exist. 
All cable networks have the capacity to carry high speed broadband signals. Government has planned to use these networks for broadband since 1999 but no action has been taken on ground till date. It is well known that Telecom players have not contributed enough to increase the broadband penetration, particularly in rural areas in spite of the government giving them huge incentives and subsidies.

  • About 40 million cable TV connections in the rural areas.
  • Most of the networks on fiberoptic cables, each joining many villages.
  • Last 500 mtrs on coaxial cables needs to be made two-way to provide broadband services.
  • Co-axial cables can carry 3 GBPS data, much more than any copper cable and it is one step-short of FTTH, the ultimate broadband service.
  • Trained manpower readily available, working on these fiberoptic cables for many years.
  • Expers in handling day to day problems and serivce to the consumers.
  • Integration to these cable networks with NOFN can speed up realisation of government's dreams of broadman
It is time  that the government utilise these cable networks  for this purpose to help the economy of the country grow and empower the people with information and knowledge . 
National Optical Fiber Network (NOFN) is the ideal solution to integrate the Cable TV Networks in the broadband infrastructure. NOFN is being implemented by Bharat Broadband Ltd, a special vehicle of the government to connect 250000 Panchayats with Broadband Services.
India's Broadband penetration is extremely low (4%) because of a poor/ non-existing last mile connectivity. Private telecom networks run after profits, so avoid going to rural areas. Our data speeds are so low that we can not even call it broadband. This is the reason that technologies like IPTV and high speed internet have failed to take off in India.
PSUs are very inefficient in doing this and may end up in spending more funds. 
Cable Operators are small entrepreneurs and are used to work at low profits and in smaller business units. So they are successful even in rural areas. Linking them with national fiberoptic network and making them provide broadband to their subscribers will give them additional income, provide employment to lakhs of people apart from helping to improve the national economy. 
Digitisation to act as catalyst
There are about 60000 cable operators (government estimates, actually claimed to figure may be very large because only ARASU cable in Tamilnadu has connect 24000 LCOs; Delhi has 2300 LCOs ) all across the country including 45% of them in the rural and semi-urban areas providing cable TV services to about 100 million households for the last 20 years. They provide 50-250 TV channels transmitting a signal of 47 MHz to 860 KHz which includes private satellite channels/ Doordarshan channels and at many places, internet through cable modems or a parallel Ethernet network.

Drawbacks with our Telecom system
1. Made only for voice.
2. Used mobile & wireless for quick/short lived gains. Too much reliance on wireless where spectrum is costly and bandwidth is limited.
3. Last mile of copper is outdated. Poor maintenance.
4. Optic Fiber only till the exchanges/BST.
5. Network resources not shared.
6. Over building/Duplicating infrastructure.
7. Telcos not interested in rural areas as not profit making.

In the last five years, massive consolidation has taken place in the industry where these operators have either formed independent MSO (Multi System Operators) connecting one another using fibre optic cables or become franchisee of the existing national or regional MSOs and provide last mile services on HFC broadband networks. Government’s recent initiative of  digitisation will act as a catalyst for providing broadband service if we gave opportunity and facility to LCOs to upgrade their networks. Already digital cable exist mostly in the four metros and some big cities following the mandate of the government for going digital by 2014 in the whole country.
There are many small networks working independently in the faraway places serving a few subscribers in the rural areas providing them with Free to Air (FTA) channels including Doordarshan channels and local channels. Even these operators use fibre optic cables to extend their networks to cover more and more villages as fibre optic cables can take the signals for longer distances without any loss and provide many channels without intermediate power supplies or distribution equipment.

Cable TV created skilled Manpower and Employment
Cable Operators use low cost indigenously manufactured/ assembled optical equipment and
With these 100 million households connected, it should be a clear indication to the telecom industry that future is only in the video. The whole process of convergence focuses on this and tries to find solutions for reaching the masses with the video signals.
fibre optic cables because these cables are  cheaper than good quality co-axial cables. The equipment including optical transmitters, nodes and splitters are manufactured/ distributed by thousands of small manufacturers using imported components.
These operators have also generated employment opportunities for lakhs of local people and trained them to use sophisticated equipment like Splicing machines, OTDR, transmitters and nodes.
These small entrepreneurs have developed the industry to its present size by their own efforts, without any help from the government, financial institutes or even supportive regulations using indigenously manufactured or assembled equipment. There are no duty concessions or subsidies given to them where as telecom companies enjoy all the privileges.
Being local residents, these operators are the best to provide broadband connections in the rural areas as they know the consumers and the market very well. It is time that the government pays attention to these networks and utilise their vast potential of broadband networking.

Better and Supporting Policies needed

Drawbacks of Cable TV infrastructure
1. Fragmented, not organised.
2. HFC networks but no proper layout, meeting the standards.
3. Not two way-no return path
4. Onlyused for video sigals for the last 25 years.
5. Mostly Analogue networks. Only 25% migrated partially (only STBs seeded) to digital in Phase I & II of Digitisation.

6. Onging Digitisation of Cable TV only helping 'Pay' TV broadcasters. Network infrastructure ignored completely, making it doubtful of the usefulness of present exercise.
There are many policies on paper to make use of the cable TV networks for broadband access like the recent ‘National Broadband Plan’ proposed by TRAI  and the Telecom Policies of 1999, 2004 and 2012 but practically nothing has been done in this regards. So much so that TRAI in its draft National Broadband Plan 2010 projects 72 million broadband Connections on cable networks by 2014 but while making regulations for the digitalisation of the industry forgets about using high band width last mile of cable and instead takes away revenue of the cable operators to enable broadcasters to earn more giving excuse that cable operators do not need any investments for digitisation.
These operators have no resources left to upgrade the last mile networks that they own and operate and have been maintaining since many years. This has resulted in the sector lagging behind.
Convergence is the Mantra
We often get bogged down with figures and projections and ignore the ground realities. We have an excellent example of Cable Television industry before us. Here the industry does not chase any targets, rather targets chase the industry. With these 100 million households connected, it should be a clear indication to the telecom industry that future is only in the video. The whole process of convergence focuses on this and tries to find solutions for reaching the masses with the video signals. In simple words, all telecom operators want to become cable operators. The very concept of broadband came up only to achieve this. If these telecom companies want to achieve their targets, they must shake hands with the cable television industry and deploy technologies that can utilise the last mile connectivity of 100 million households. Co-axial cables are any way better than the twisted pair of telephone to carry a high bandwidth signal carrying video, audio and data.

Cable TV Infrastructure Neglected
The CATV infrastructure is governed by the Telegraph Act but the Telecom Ministry has not so far recognized it as their responsibility. I & B Ministry care only for the content providers, Broadcasters and distribution of content and not the cable infrastructure that carries the content.

Positive side of the situation
1.Telecom networks have organized infrastructure of fiber optic cables for back haul services.
2.Cable operators are operating profitably in these rural areas for the last 25 years earning their livelihood.
3.About 5 lakh people from local areas have been employed in these networks and trained on the job.
4.Telcos are large companies with capacity to invest.
5.Government support through USOF.
6.Cable Networks last mile ready for triple play broadband service with slight upgrades.
7.Cable Operators are experienced in the fibre optic networking and maintenance.
8.Cable Operators own the broadband households (Cable TV) and are export in customer acquisition, day to day dealings, marketing of services and collection of revenue.

The result is that this vast landline broadband infrastructure capable of much higher quality and speed in transmission is being wasted out and wireless technologies like DTH, HITS, Mobile etc. are being given preference because they permit the rich Broadcasters to go direct to the consumers bypassing the cable operators and make more money from the gullible consumers. 

Technologies in Cable TV Broadband
MSOs and LCOs are increasingly deploying FTTB or FTTC and moving closer to FTTH, which is the ultimate technology for broadband. Cable TV Fiber is reaching very close to the cluster of customer houses, just 300 to 500 mtrs short. These networks are ideal for triple play services.
As the traditional unicast structure which exists in India for many years do not meet the demand as a basic multimedia platform; government must facilitate building of bi-directional networks. The CATV bi-directional network structure also has 3 layers including core, aggregation and access compared with other broadband service networks, the only difference is the access method. Same structure is used for data services by any type of network including household access, aggregation of data stream and trunk transmission. 
There are 3 popular solutions available for converting cable TV network into a broadband network:
1.CMTS+CM- is for DOCSIS and widely exist in the CATV networks in developed countries as it was born early with expensive system. DOCSIS system is becoming outdated as it is not very bandwidth efficient. The old system (Docsis 2.0) can provide only 30 Mbps of capacity where as the new, DOCSIS 3.0 can provide 100 mbps per channel, but the system is costly for India. Some large MSOs are using the old system but only for enterprise use and not in residential use.
2.EPON+EoC is ideal for HFC networks where Fiber and co-axial cables are used. It is very cost effective and existed networks can adopt it without much changes.
3.Ethernet switch- This is the popular access method for UTP cable.  Many cable operators use CAT-5 cables in a parallel network to supply broadband to their consumers taking band width from ISPs.
IPTV or IP streaming will become more popular with Cable TV operators in the future as all cable TV digital headends provide IP output. It is also easy to be integrated with existing telecom networks. Feeding Long distance Hubs from the Headend shall be on IP where cheaper edge QAM modulators will turn it into a one way RF cable TV signal in the same conventional way as the LCOs are familiar with today.

Policy Support
In most of the developing countries like China, Brazil, Egypt, Philippines etc. government policies have been framed to remove all obstacles for CATV operator to enter into the IP service market where only Telecom operators were operating. This helped the cable operators to invest in broadband infrastructure so that they can compete with the telecom operators providing IP&TV and VOD services to subscribers as soon as possible. We also need policies to assist the cable TV industry to upgrade networks for broadband.
Some of the measures government should take to realise the broadband dreams are:-
1.Government should Recognise/ Indentfy  already laid Infrastructure and support these LCOs to give Broadband to Panchayats & Municipalities integrating these networks with the Bharat Broadband Network and State e-governance networks.
2.Encourage LCO’s entrepreneurship skills.They already are recognised as Small Scale Services and business Enterprise(SSS&BE). Since 1994 but have not received any benefit in the last 19 years.
3.Provide technical knowledge (can be through local DD engineers in DD Kendras or BSNL officials spread all across country.
4.Financial support through banks/ institutions and USO Fund.
5.Tax rebate on Digital equipment on Import ( Telcos get the same equipment duty free).
6.Promote Indigenous manufacturing.
7.Right of way (Intercity or state).
8.This will generate Employment. Other government schemes like the MGNREGA can be associated with this too in building the infrastructure.
9.Technical education and skill development in satellite and cable distribution should be included as a special subject in Technical institutes.
10.One window clearance for laying OFC networks, using existing Railways, NHAI, GAIL, Municipal Corporations, PWD networks etc.
11.To provide affordable Broadband for consumers provide bandwidth at a subsidized cost to operators serving the rural /underdeveloped areas.
12.Provide incentive schemes for LCO to give good/ efficient digital services to the consumers.
An extract from the outline of the National Broadband Plan drafted by TRAI is given below that highlights need of heavy investments in last mile cable networks.
Cable TV Networks. The other option for providing the broadband is through coaxial cables used for Cable TV. India today has a large broadcasting sector comprising 550 television channels and about 85 million Cable TV households in India. Cable TV networks can be a cheaper and convenient source of providing broadband to households as cable TV networks already have access to large number of households. A cable television (CATV) network is based on broadband coaxial cables.  One channel on coaxial cable can have a bit rate of 30 Mbps or more for the downstream and normally lower for the upstream, but the bandwidth is shared among all users connected to the headend. By and large cable TV networks are analog and one way. These networks require upgradation for providing broadband.
Assuming that the average length of cable laid by the cable operator to each home is 100 meters, for 85 million cable TV homes the total cable laid is around 8.5 million kilometres. Further, the cable operator is provided connectivity by MSO on optical fiber which has an average length of 1.5 kilometres. According to the industry, MSOs have laid around 30,000 km of optical fiber to provide connectivity to cable operators besides large backbone fiber network for inter city and intra city connectivity. At many places they are using the fiber networks of telecom service providers.
To provide Internet services, cable operators are required to upgrade their cable networks so that signals could flow in both directions. They also need to build a sophisticated end-to-end IP networking infrastructure in each community they want to serve which is robust enough to support data subscribers. These include items like Internet backbone connectivity, routers, servers, network management tools, as well as security and billing systems.
Government should not ignore this opportunity to increase the broadband penetration in the country, particularly rural areas using cable networks that will save the employment of lakhs of people in the industry apart from helping the national economy.


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