Broadband penetration took centre stage this year with Australia’s National Broadband Initiative to ensure a 100 megabits per second (mbps) connection for every family and business. US President Barack Obama spoke of the “digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together” in his January inauguration, following this up with $7.2 billion to increase the number of households and businesses with high-speed connections. Why the sudden focus on broadband? Simply put, it has the potential to accelerate growth and facilitate socio-economic transformation.
India announced its Internet policy in November 1998 based on then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s vision of a 21st century India, with the Internet central to our becoming an information technology power. An Internet licence was offered at a token fee of Re1 with the objective of “Internet for all”. Around 500 companies took the licence, with hundreds starting the service. Soon, however, many exited, including large corporations such as BPL and British Telecom (BT). It was financially unviable for them to offer Internet services, what with the state trying to provide infrastructure at high costs while undercutting them at the retail level.
The state’s monopolistic practices continued unchecked despite pleas from Internet service providers (ISPs). The struggling ISP industry was curbed further by the department of telecommunications (DoT). Consider the following:
• The state decreed accounting separation between Internet infrastructure services and retail services, so that one did not cross-subsidize the other at the cost of ISPs. This was never carried out, making ISPs uncompetitive and unviable.
• ISPs were levied high rates for port charges despite being volume customers, while individual customers were charged much less.
• Infrastructure services were provided without service-level agreements; so they weren’t dependable.
• DoT imposed a licence for virtual private networks (VPN), despite this being covered under the ISP license, at a cost which deterred most ISPs from running VPNs.
• Despite the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) strongly recommending unbundling of the last mile—or opening up the last mile of wires as part of a revenue sharing model—to encourage broadband penetration in 2004, DoT failed to implement it.
• Trai’s recommendation to allow voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) calls within India to boost broadband penetration are yet to be implemented by DoT.
• Wimax, or worldwide interoperability for microwave access, spectrum is being clubbed with the mobile phone spectrum for auction instead of being priced differently, as in other countries. This effectively prevents ISPs from offering Wimax.
What complicates matters further is that the department of information technology is responsible for Internet, but DoT decides the policies that impact its growth. No wonder we are far behind other nations with regard to Internet penetration.
Consider the Internet penetration of the other Bric countries: China, with a population of 1.33 billion, has over 20% penetration; Brazil, with a population of 191 million has 26% penetration; Russia, with a population of 143 million, has 20% penetration against India’s 3%. And all of them have a penetration growth rate that is far higher than India’s, with broadband speeds of at least 1 mbps or more, while our definition of broadband is just 256 kilobytes per second. Many other countries already have broadband speeds of 20 mbps and more.
Broadband infrastructure is as important for economic growth as roads, railways, airports and ports. Recognizing this, countries around the world have made this a priority. For broadband penetration enables actual inclusive growth, e-governance and innovation: everything India needs to achieve to improve the quality of life of its citizens.
When will it become our national priority?
David Appasamy is chief communications officer, Sify Technologies. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org