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Mission Possible

But success of Digital India will need the convergence of networks and regulations.


Updated: September 8, 2015 3:02:05 am
digital india, digital india week, design in india, pm modi, digital india, National Optical Fibre Network, NOFN Digital India initiative, Digital India, BBNL, modi digital india, make in india, mobile governance, m governance, Digital India, Digital India, Narendra Modi, e-governance, digital india week, technology news, indian express Even the present unified licensing regime falls short of imparting true flexibility to the licence-holder. Separate infrastructure and rules lead to wastage of resources and high costs.

Rahul Khullar, in an article in The Indian Express said that Digital India was “mission impossible” (‘Mission impossible’, August 12). This article proposes a modified structure for the programme’s success before 2019.

Digital India attempts the most ambitious and inclusive (voice, data, hi-tech manufacturing, controls and other services) connectivity. This brilliant programme is an amalgam of three older ones. The first, aimed to deliver broadband to all, the National Optical Fibre Network Plan (NOFN) is badly structured. It’s being implemented through a PSU supervised by the ministries of telecom, power and railways. Such multiple controls and the monopoly environment can deliver absolutely nothing. Naturally, this network has perpetually moving targets of completion — 2013, 2014, and now 2019.

Public and private operators must be allowed a level playing field in laying down the NOFN on the basis of lowest cost and early completion offers. They can also be encouraged to lay down more of their own backbone lines to connect gram panchayats. And all fibre, towers and spectrum must mandatorily be shared for maximum capacity utilisation, but without imposing additional costs to ensure cheap delivery of broadband.

The present programme’s priorities are totally wrong. We should first concentrate on subscriber connectivity to the existing 35,000 fibre ends. This delivery mode will give us ideas, models and rates to connect all 2.5 lakh fibre ends to consumers through the modified NOFN.

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The competitive regime should lead to low tariffs. If it doesn’t, subsidisation at the consumer’s end can be considered. To ensure cheap tariffs, last-mile connectivity in areas close to fibre ends should be encouraged through free Wifi and similar technologies on free spectrum. Delivery through 3G, 4G, and maybe 5G, at the operators’ end, in the last mile, should also be made easy with minimum cost regulations.

There are various issues like inadequate spectrum, high spectrum price, non-availability of contiguous spectrum, non-allocation of backhaul spectrum, etc, as well as the government auctioning spectrum in small chunks. For Digital India, larger chunks of spectrum are required. To increase availability, harmonisation of spectrum among users is required, without extra levies. The policy should also allow automatic M&As to bring companies to an optimum size and number, with appropriate higher quantities of spectrum available on merger for efficient delivery of broadband and other services.

We need to encourage the deployment of newer technologies and IP-based networks for delivering converged and inclusive services. Single-window and automatic clearances for right of way and towers, and Standing Advisory Committee on Frequency Allocations recommendations are a must for early roll-out. These can be achieved by creating a competitive environment between cities. Both public and private sectors will extend broadband coverage only when the number of consumers in different areas is known. Consumers should be identified block- and village-wise for early network expansion.

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Successful implementation can only happen in a converged environment, not in the present fragmented one. The existing policy and licensing regime will have to be given up and, as in most communication-efficient countries, we have to move to a totally converged network designed to seamlessly deliver all kinds of services — not individual services on different nationwide networks and regulatory systems.

The network today is full of contradictions. The National Telecom Policy 2012 speaks of convergence. However, interrelated sectors like telecom, broadcasting and IT are governed by different policies, licensing frameworks, FDI norms, cross-holding restrictions, etc. Even the present unified licensing regime falls short of imparting true flexibility to the licence-holder. Separate infrastructure and rules lead to wastage of resources and high costs.

The convergence of networks and regulations is a must for optimal utilisation of resources and also for the implementation of newer technologies. This would lead to an explosive growth in new hi-tech manufacturing systems. More important is the linkage of cross-sectoral content that can be converted to services like health, education, governance, in addition to entertainment. For efficient operation, this will need a converged network. To encourage technological innovation, light-touch regulations are required and the government has to monitor only for major violations related to security. All of this would be possible in a changed and modified version of the Convergence Bill, 2001, earlier drafted by legal luminary Fali Nariman.

The writer is former Trai chairman.

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First published on: 08-09-2015 at 12:01:07 am
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