Monday, September 22, 2008

What Ails Broadband in India?

(This was originally written two years ago; nothing much has actually changed since then!)

1000,000,000 people
700,000,000  young people
600,000,000 literate people
180,000,000 telecom subscribers
100,000,000 with higher education
60,000,000 cable pay TV homes
40,000,000 Internet users

... and just about 2,000,000 broadband subscribers. Broadband, which by the way is defined in India at <=256Kbps: just about enough speed to let you experience the new, emerging Internet. The Indian Govt. has declared 2007 as the year of broadband, and a target of 9mn subs has been set for the year.

Just so you know, China has about 75 million broadband subscribers -- 60% of its Internet subscribers have broadband.

Why is a nation such as ours, IT superpower and aspiring global superpower, so poor when it comes to broadband penetration?

1. Very Poor Fixed Line Infrastructure
Most countries that have a high broadband penetration have (a) high wireline penetration, and / or  (b) robust cable infrastructure. Simply speaking, if you do not have the basic infrastructure, you cannot provide a superior service such as broadband. Unfortunately for us, neither of these two conditions exist in India.

There are about 40-odd million fixed lines, of which only about 30% - about 10mn - are capable of providing broadband. In recent years, there has been almost no investment in increasing and/or improving the quality of fixed line infrastructure. The country has added 140mn wireless subscribers in the last 5 years, as against just 5mn wireline subs. While  lack of focus on wireleine by the incumbents, BSNL and MTNL is an important factor, the blame must really be borned by the regulatory and policy regime which has not created an environment to encourage competition (and thereby, investment) in fixed line infrastructure / services in the country. The TRAI had recommended  unbundling of the local loop as a step towards limited competition, but as has now almost become a norm, the TRAI recommendations were not accepted by the DoT.
Less said the better about cable infrastructure. It is a highly fragile and completely unregulated cobweb of many thousands of independent networks. It will take an investment of at least Rs 200 billion to upgrade the cable last mile to make it 2-way and broadband capable. Nobody, it appears, is willing to take that challenge up. 

2. No Encouragement to Competition
It is well-recognized that the mobile revolution in India has been driven primarily by competition: 6-7 operators across the country. Private operators were licensed years before the incumbents were allowed to enter the mobile market; several steps have been taken towards creating a level playing field for all the licensed mobile operators. On the other hand, in broadband, there is absolutely no policy measure to encourage private operators to enter and compete; this in spite of the fact that none of them have any last mile infrastructure to speak of, and therefore, require considerable support in the initial years.

The incumbents that are riding on public-funded fixed line infrastructure have - in almost a predatory manner - dropped tariffs so much that India has, at the same time, the lowest broadband ARPU and the poorest broadband penetration in the world! Wireless broadband (read WiMax) is generally expected to become the competitive alternative - but there has simply been no urgency in creating the policy environment to encourage wireless. TRAI has finally issued its recommendations - suggesting that WiMax be implemented in the 3.3 - 3.6 GHz bands while the rest of the world is moving towards 2.5GHz. There is no clarity when these recommendations will be accepted and subsequently, implemented. One can guess that it will be late 2007 before any real competitive action will begin in broadband. Meanwhile, BSNL's juggernaut will continue - they have now announced 2Mbps speeds (up 4 times from 512 Kbps) for the same tariff.

Can something be done to salvage the situation?
Unfortunately, in the short term, I see no option for the customers and private operators. During 2007, the incumbents will strengthen their dominance in the broadband market (for whatever it is worth); private operators will half-heartedly roll out parallel copper / cable networks and will be plagued with quality issues. Everyone, including BSNL, will experiment with WiMax, and perhaps by the end of the year, commence full-fledged network roll-out.

The Broadband market will have to wait till 2008 for true competition, high quality and innovative services - available in all major towns and cities. But the rest of the world will not stay still. Will the gap between India and other markets such as US and Singapore widen? I am afraid, yes.

What a depressing thought to end 2006 with. Let us change that. My next post, hopefully before this year ends, will have some suggestions on medium and long terms measures on what can be done during 2007 to ensure that we catch up with the rest of the world before the end of this decade.


No comments: