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Wireline Route: TRAI suggests measures to increase fixed line broadband uptake

November 27, 2015
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According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), India ranks 125th in the world in terms of fixed broadband penetration, with only 1.2 per 100 inhabitants having access to the service. Meanwhile, the global average is 9.4 per 100. At the end of August 2015, the number of broadband subscribers in India stood at 117.34 million, of which only around 14 per cent were wireline subscribers. While this trend is only likely to continue with the increasing focus on 3G and 4G network expansion, the growth prospects of fixed broadband cannot be ignored.

Case for wireline

There is likely to be an increase in the uptake of fixed line broadband in the years to come. The key reason for this is the fact that even the speeds offered by advanced wireless technologies like 3G and 4G long term evolution are significantly lower than those provided by fixed line technologies. As per Akamai’s State of the Internet report, the average wired broadband speed in India in 2014 was 1.7 Mbps, while the average wireless broadband speed was 1.3 Mbps. The high speed offered by wired broadband increases the quality of bandwidth-intensive services like videoconferencing, voice over internet protocol and internet gaming, thereby enhancing user experience.

Wireless data network coverage remains limited at various locations across India owing to the lack of spectrum. With the limited availability of additional spectrum in the near future, the mobile network capacity is expected to remain inadequate for catering to the increased data traffic.

As recently launched initiatives like Digital India and the Smart Cities Mission start gaining traction, the demand for fixed line broadband will accelerate further. The backbone of these initiatives is a robust high speed broadband infrastructure, which can be achieved through advanced fixed line technologies like fibre optic. The promising trends in the wireline broadband segment have also provided opportunities to operators like Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited to leverage the potential of their fibre assets.

Recent developments

In India, wired broadband access is offered through a variety of technologies like digital subscriber lines (DSL), Ethernet, fibre, cable modems and leased lines. At present, DSL is the predominant technology for providing wired broadband in the country. However, other technologies have also gained traction, particularly fibre and cable modems. To boost optical fibre deployment, the government is implementing the BharatNet project, which aims to provide broadband connectivity to 250,000 panchayats by December 2018. As of September 2015, about 90,000 km of optical fibre cable (OFC) had been laid across 68,000 gram panchayats.

As cable TV reaches more households in India than wireline telephone connections, the government is gradually lever-aging cable TV infrastructure as a franchisee network of internet service providers (ISPs) for providing broadband services. It recently granted ISP licences to state-run operator Tamil Nadu Arasu Cable Television Limited for providing broadband services in the state. Many companies that are planning to enter the fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) business are building collaborations with local cable operators in order to reach individual consumers. Besides saving on massive capital and operational expenses, such collaborations help telecom companies by saving on the cost and time involved in securing local clearances.

Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL) which is scheduled to shortly launch its FTTH services in addition to 4G, is also in talks with cable operators, particularly in large and densely populated cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru. While RJIL had laid 250,000 km of OFC till June 2015, it is planning to achieve last mile connectivity to individual homes through cable operators. The company is also in talks to acquire some multisystem operators.

Challenges aplenty

While there is no denying the multiple benefits offered by fixed line broadband, several challenges are limiting its uptake. In the case of DSL technology, which uses copper cables for providing broadband, the quality of cables has started deteriorating due to declining landline connections. This has prevented operators from investing in the maintenance of old and the purchase of new cables. DSL is also facing issues of signal degradation, which occurs over large distances due to the resistance in copper wires.

The main issues in the deployment of fibre networks relate to right-of-way (RoW) costs, which are extremely high, often ten times more than the value of the fibre being laid. Obtaining RoW clearance is an onerous task as there is no single-window clearance mechanism. In addition, uncoordinated development activities like road expansion and the laying of electrical cables by multiple agencies and private contractors result in frequent cuts in cables, leading to their depreciated life and increased operating costs.

With regard to cable modem services, a major impediment is the unwillingness of a large number of cable operators to secure an ISP licence as it would require them to pay 8 per cent of their adjusted gross revenue as licence fee. Moreover, while cable TV operations do not require skilled manpower, highly skilled personnel are required for delivering broadband services. Another problem is that the use of amplifiers for boosting internet signal strength increases the noise level in cable TV signals. Further hindrances arise from the fact that the growth of cable TV networks in India has been unstructured and haphazard, with the quality of installed cables varying significantly from place to place.

TRAI recommendations

In April 2015, TRAI released a set of recommendations for improving India’s wired broadband architecture. In a report titled “Delivering Broadband Quickly: What do we need to do?”, TRAI has recommended exempting fixed line broadband services from licence fees for at least five years. It has also suggested mandating city developers and builders to have properly demarcated sections within buildings and on rooftops for housing broadband infrastructure.

For improving cable modem services, TRAI has proposed that cable operators be allowed to function as resellers of ISP licence holders. Infrastructure costs for operators can be reduced by lowering customs duty on hybrid fibre coaxial-based network equipment and customer premises equipment. Another suggestion is that cable operators be provided financial support through banks and the Universal Service Obligation Fund.

The RoW issue has been addressed in detail, with a proposal for single-window clearance at the state and central government levels. All such clearances will have to be time-bound, with reasons for RoW denial to be recorded in writing. The construction design policies of infrastructure-related projects like roads must include a provision for utility ducts to enable the laying of OFC for all new infrastructure. Similar measures should also be adopted in existing projects in a Dig Only Once policy approach. RoW agencies should mark areas for laying underground cables at a significant distance from roads to prevent service disruptions during expansions. Strong administrative and legal provisions must be put in place for the payment of compensation in case cables are cut or damaged by any agency.

TRAI has also said that RoW rates should be standardised, and fixed and uniform procedures must be practised by all agencies. For this, the legislation of a national RoW policy has been proposed to ensure uniformity in costs and processes. The regulatory body has asserted that there is a need to amend existing building by-laws that currently deem only electricity, water and fire safety as necessary infrastructure for the issuance of a completion certificate. The mandatory inclusion of ducts or optical fibre with well-defined access mechanisms in upcoming office complexes, commercial spaces and residential complexes will have a significant positive impact on broadband penetration. In addition, TRAI has suggested that the fibre networks of service providers be awarded critical infrastructure status.

Conclusion

While these proposals are yet to see the light of day, they can contribute significantly in expanding India’s wired broadband segment if implemented in the true spirit and form. This will be imperative in the government’s attempts to take the Digital India project forward.

 
 
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