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Broadband Challenges: Key issues in service uptake

June 01, 2012
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In 2010, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had set a target of achieving 20 million broadband connections. However, till date, the country has only 12.5 million broadband connections, indicating a huge gap between demand and supply.  Factors such as the high cost of fibre and right-of-way (RoW) have proved to be deterrents in delivering broadband services. Internet service providers (ISPs) and analysts share their views on the challenges in increasing broadband penetration in the country and the way forward...


How has the broadband segment performed in the last one year?

Rajesh Chharia

At present, we are struggling with the poor state of broadband proliferation in rural areas. However, with the National Telecom Policy  (NTP), 2012, the government has proved its commitment to expedite the process of connecting users with broadband across the country. With positive policy initiatives announced as part of the NTP, 2012, the country looks well placed to achieve 600 million broadband connections by 2020.

Sukanta Pal

ISPs and TRAI had set a target of achieving 20 million broadband connections by 2010. However, till date, we have managed to secure only 12.5 million connections.

N. Ravi Shanker

Broadband growth in the country has been slow so far. There are two aspects to it. According to analysts and industry reports, broadband penetration is dependent on fair and satisfactory growth in the number of PCs, which is an indicator of overall economic growth. The second aspect is the availability of uninterrupted power supply. Reliable power supply will aid the growth of broadband in rural areas. In addition, it will serve to push infrastructure development in rural areas, such as in the field of transportation, education and health.

The spread of information technology literacy as against computer literacy will help to increase the uptake of broadband services. A fisherman or a farmer should be capable of accessing basic and useful applications using broadband services. India needs to ensure that people across rural areas are able to access information through voice-based services even if they are not equipped to handle other electronic devices. This can be done by creating a bank of videos that demonstrate the requisite skills. Such information will help people in rural areas to acquire new skills or enhance their existing skills.

What are the key challenges in improving the uptake of broadband services?

Rajesh Chharia

TRAI needs to closely examine the issue of why the price of domestic broadband services is higher than that of international broadband services. Previously, the cost of international broadband services was four to five times higher than that in India. However, the situation is now the reverse. The price of broadband services must be reduced in order to increase their reach in the country.

Sukanta Pal

India being a vast country, the cost of providing broadband connectivity across all regions is high. Issues such as RoW and the high cost of fibre deployment have proved to be deterrents in delivering broadband. There exists a huge gap on the supply side.

Wireless broadband offers immense opportunity for connecting remote locations in the country. We have a huge small and medium enterprise segment which needs to be tapped and empowered with wireless connectivity. Cloud-based services are emerging as a big phenomenon in this space. We need to understand that broadband is used by consumers for specific applications and their requirements vary throughout the day. Industry statistics show that browsing on social networking sites takes up 40 per cent of consumers’ time.

Further, it is only video-based content that requires high speed connectivity,  and this should be provided to consumers at affordable prices with more functionality. Several innovative offers should be made available by service providers to popularise 3G services amongst users. For 3G services to achieve higher uptake, the cost of the same should be reduced drastically.

N. Ravi Shanker

The availability of power is one of the biggest challenges in ensuring broadband growth in rural areas. Further, the cost of devices to access broadband has to be low, below Rs 5,000, for mass adoption. More devices like Aakash need to be introduced. Also, 3G and 4G services should be priced competitively to encourage broadband service uptake.

Dr Mahesh Uppal

There are several issues pertaining to  demand and supply that impede the uptake of broadband services in the country. Broadband networks, whether fixed line or wireless, are still not available across the entire country. Broadly, there are three user segments that face different issues while using broadband services. The first segment comprises those users who have access to broadband but might not have the requisite devices such as mobile phones or smartphones to use these services. The second segment consists of users who have the required access to the network and the devices but may not have sufficient need to use broadband. The third segment comprises users who have access to both broadband and the devices but due to unavailability of preferred and required content, they do not have any incentive to subscribe to  broadband services.

To encourage penetration of broadband services in the country, we will have to address the needs and requirements of these different segments of users.

What steps need to be taken to increase broadband penetration in the country?

Rajesh Chharia

We have raised our concerns with the government regarding its reluctance to open up the sector for VoIP services. ISPs can provide affordable VoIP services only when the government reduces the high entry fee of Rs 16 billion being levied on ISPs for providing these services.

India is a price-sensitive country. Initially, when calling charges were high, there were few takers for  mobile services.  With the reduction in call rates, there has been mass penetration of telecom services.

Sukanta Pal

The infrastructure requirements for providing broadband services need to be addressed. The country’s backbone network has to be strengthened to support the increasing traffic resulting from the high usage of video content by users. For this, we need more investments in optical fibre.

Dr Mahesh Uppal

A significant growth in broadband services can be achieved by looking into the complete ecosystem covering both the demand as well as supply side. A huge investment in networks is required in this regard. Also, regulatory support is needed for the smooth functioning of these networks.

Further, to encourage adoption of broadband services, ISPs as well as operators should offer varied and useful services to the customer. These services could relate to health, education, entertainment or e-commerce.

How will the launch of next-generation technologies like 3G and 4G impact the applications in the broadband space?

Rajesh Chharia

In terms of technology, adequate delivery of optic fibre to the home must be ensured for increased broadband connectivity. Also, wireless needs to deliver to users on the move. Users must be provided with uninterrupted high speed connectivity as outlined by the NTP, 2012. The prices of 3G and 4G services should be brought down to encourage the uptake of these services. Also content will play a major role in popularising 3G and 4G services. These technologies will result in an increased number of internet users. In fact, the availability of 3G and 4G spectrum will help operators in decongesting their networks.

Sukanta Pal

We are witnessing a huge change in the way the internet is being used by consumers. At various points in time, consumers use different kinds of content. They want all the applications and services to be available on a single device.  Also, the consumers’ usage pattern and the demand for content are undergoing a change. The content being offered to users can no longer be static and needs to be more dynamic. ISPs and operators need to closely monitor the content being utilised by consumers as it will help them understand the demand. The country is witnessing the emergence of a new category of users who have never used the internet before.

Trends show that with the coming of 3G and 4G technologies, and with the increasing popularity of smartphones and tablets, the time spent by users on specific sites and mobile phones is going up. Thus, there is a need to push contextual and location-specific content.

N. Ravi Shanker

The adoption of 3G and 4G technologies will be based on the fact that India is demographically young, with around half the population being less than 35 years of age. The younger segment are the early adopters of technology. Young consumers as well as first-time users will access broadband using wireless services. Currently, we require innovative applications and offerings that would interest this segment of users who generally use services while on the move.

Dr Mahesh Uppal

3G and 4G technologies are going to be an important element in the growth story of broadband as most users will be accessing wireless broadband in the future. A better developed 3G ecosystem is very crucial for the growth of broadband. To ensure this, we require more 3G-enabled handsets. Also, the services offered by telecom operators have to be made available to users at affordable prices.

With higher bandwidth, 4G too is expected to play a big role in the growth of broadband. We need a strong backbone network in place to carry large amounts of data. Even though last mile connectivity will come through wireless, we need to strengthen fixed bandwidth as well. We cannot scale up our broadband connectivity relying on wireless alone.

How far will government projects such as the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) help in the uptake and improvement of broadband services?

Rajesh Chharia

At present, Bharat Broadband is doing a good job of providing connectivity to broadband networks by laying optic fibre cable across the country. This will see broadband coverage increasing and prices reducing.

N. Ravi Shanker

The NOFN may be considered a “highway” that is being built to provide broadband access to villages. For it to be successful, we need to ensure that it is used extensively. One way of achieving this is by making available relevant and easy-to-use applications. The NOFN can be leveraged to promote the uptake of services such as e-health, e-education and telemedicine.

Dr Mahesh Uppal

It is still early to predict the impact of the NOFN on the reach of broadband services. However, the project lays down encouraging and strategic objectives. With increased usage of data services, India will need a thicker fibre-based pipeline to support high speed traffic.

What is your regulatory wish list for broadband services?

Rajesh Chharia

The government must allow ISPs to provide VoIP services. There should not be any restrictions on them in terms of high entry fees.

Sukanta Pal

As a country, we have kept up with the new trends and technologies in the broadband space. There is demand for broadband but we are struggling on the supply side and thus need the government’s intervention and support. ISPs require a complete ecosystem including a strong infrastructure that will enable them to increase broadband penetration in India.

Currently, India has close to 17.75 million internet users. There is a huge gap between the numbers that we have achieved in the broadband space compared to the targets that we had set for ourselves.

3G services have not proved to be as successful as expected. The last one year has shown two distinct trends. The first is that people are  using more content-based applications such as videos. Second, the overall ecosystem for broadband services has improved considerably.

N. Ravi Shanker

Ideally, policies that permit and facilitate delivery and access to multiple technologies on a common platform are required. There should be no restrictions on operators and customers, and no constraints on the usage of broadband.

Dr Mahesh Uppal

First, we need to ensure that there is easy and affordable access to spectrum. Second, we need to expedite the process of providing broadband by increased deployment of the optical fibre network. This access to the backbone network should be fair and effective. Every user should be able to access the network on reasonable terms. Third, the industry as well as the regulators must create an ecosystem that encourages the emergence of applications and services that are well-suited to user needs.


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