India’s ‘Self-Goal’ in Telecom

Posted by Shyam Ponappa at Apr 09, 2020 07:18 AM |


This post was first published in the Business Standard, on March 5, 2020.




The government apparently cannot resolve the problems in telecommunications. Why? Because the authorities are trying to balance the Supreme Court order on Adjusted Gross Revenue  (AGR), with keeping the telecom sector healthy, while safeguarding consumer interest. These irreconcilable differences have arisen because both the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance governments prosecuted unreasonable claims for 15 years, despite adverse rulings! This imagined “impossible trinity” is an entirely self-created conflation.
If only the authorities focused on what they can do for India’s real needs instead of tilting at windmills, we’d fare better. Now, we are close to a collapse in communications that would impede many sectors, compound the problem of non-performing assets (NPAs), demoralise bankers, increase unemployment, and reduce investment, adding to our economic and social problems.
Is resolving the telecom crisis central to the public interest? Yes, because people need good infrastructure to use time, money, material, and mindshare effectively and efficiently, with minimal degradation of their environment, whether for productive purposes or for leisure. Systems that deliver water, sanitation, energy, transport and communications support all these activities. Nothing matches the transformation brought about by communications in India from 2004 to 2011 in our complex socio-economic terrain and demography. Its potential is still vast, limited only by our imagination and capacity for convergent action. Yet, the government’s dysfunctional approach to communications is in stark contrast to the constructive approach to make rail operations viable for private operators.
India’s interests are best served if people get the services they need for productivity and wellbeing with ease, at reasonable prices. This is why it is important for government and people to understand and work towards establishing good infrastructure.

What the Government Can Do

An absolute prerequisite is for all branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial), the press and media, and society, to recognise that all of us must strive together to conceptualise and achieve good infrastructure. It is not “somebody else’s job”, and certainly not just the Department of Telecommunications’ (DoT’s). The latter cannot do it alone, or even take the lead, because the steps required far exceed its ambit.

Act Quickly

These actions are needed immediately:

First, annul the AGR demand using whatever legal means are available. For instance, the operators could file an appeal, and the government could settle out of court, renouncing the suit, accepting the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) ruling of 2015 on AGR.

Second, issue an appropriate ordinance that rescinds all extended claims. Follow up with the requisite legislation, working across political lines for consensus in the national interest.

Third, take action to organise and deliver communications services effectively and efficiently to as many people as possible. The following steps will help build and maintain more extensive networks with good services, reasonable prices, and more government revenues.

Enable Spectrum Usage on Feasible Terms

Wireless regulations

It is infeasible for fibre or cable to reach most people in India, compared with wireless alternatives. Realistically, the extension of connectivity beyond the nearest fibre termination point is through wireless middle-mile connections, and Wi-Fi for most last-mile links. The technology is available, and administrative decisions together with appropriate legislation can enable the use of spectrum immediately in 60GHz, 70-80GHz, and below 700MHz bands to be used by authorised operators for wireless connectivity. The first two bands are useful for high-capacity short and medium distance hops, while the third is for up to 10 km hops. The DoT can follow its own precedent set in October 2018 for 5GHz for Wi-Fi, i.e., use the US Federal Communications Commission regulations as a model.1 The one change needed is an adaptation to our circumstances that restricts their use to authorised operators for the middle-mile instead of open access, because of the spectrum payments made by operators. Policies in the public interest allowing spectrum use without auctions do not contravene Supreme Court orders.

Policies: Revenue sharing for spectrum

A second requirement is for all licensed spectrum to be paid for as a share of revenues based on usage as for licence fees, in lieu of auction payments. Legislation to this effect can ensure that spectrum for communications is either paid through revenue sharing for actual use, or is open access for all Wi-Fi bands. The restricted middle-mile use mentioned above can be charged at minimal administrative costs for management through geo-location databases to avoid interference. In the past, revenue-sharing has earned much more than up-front fees in India, and rejuvenated communications.2 There are two additional reasons for revenue sharing. One is the need to manufacture a significant proportion of equipment with Indian IPR or value-added, to not have to rely as much as we do on imports. This is critical for achieving a better balance-of-payments, and for strategic considerations. The second is to enable local talent to design and develop solutions for devices for local as well as global markets, which is denied because it is virtually impossible for them to access spectrum, no matter what the stated policies might claim.

Policies and Organisation for Infrastructure Sharing

Further, the government needs to actively facilitate shared infrastructure with policies and legislation. One way is through consortiums for network development and management, charging for usage by authorised operators. At least two consortiums that provide access for a fee, with government’s minority participation in both for security and the public interest, can ensure competition for quality and pricing. Authorised service providers could pay according to usage.
Press reports of a consortium approach to 5G where operators pay as before and the government “contributes” spectrum reflect seriously flawed thinking.3 Such extractive payments with no funds left for network development and service provision only support an illusion that genuine efforts are being made to the ill-informed, who simultaneously rejoice in the idea of free services while acclaiming high government charges (the two are obviously not compatible).
Instead of tilting at windmills that do not serve people’s needs while beggaring their prospects, commitment to our collective interests requires implementing what can be done with competence and integrity.

Shyam (no space) Ponappa at gmail dot com
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