New Delhi: Even as the Telecom Commission prepares to approve a Rs9,970-crore proposal for laying an alternative communication network for the defence forces to resolve issues related to 3G spectrum, another dispute is simmering over broadband wireless access (BWA) spectrum.
The dispute, between the department of telecommunications (DoT) and the department of space (DoS), is threatening to delay an auction of BWA spectrum that the government had estimated would raise around Rs12,000 crore this fiscal.
BWA spectrum is necessary for rolling out Wimax services to significantly increase broadband penetration, especially in far-flung areas where cables cannot reach.
Network tussle: BWA spectrum is needed to roll out Wimax services to increase broadband penetration, especially in far-flung areas. Rajkumar / Mint
Wimax, short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, is a telecommunications technology similar to Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, a standard that helps hand-held devices and laptops to access the Internet. Wimax is much faster and offers longer range.
The issue between DoT and DoS is that the latter insists Wimax operations will interfere with sensitive satellite communications in adjacent spectrum bands, according to officials in the two government departments and industry executives interviewed by Mint.
In May, the defence forces agreed to vacate 42.5Mhz of spectrum, the carrier of voice signals between wireless devices such as cellphones. Because of the mobile nature of military operations, the defence forces are the biggest users of spectrum in a country that has become the fastest growing cellphone market, adding at least 10 million new mobile subscribers a month and exponentially raising spectrum demand.
The defence forces will be given an alternative optical fibre cable network for their communication needs. The network is being built by state-owned telecom firms Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd on behalf of DoT. The army’s network will cost Rs1,077.16 crore and that for the air force and navy combined will cost Rs8,893 crore.
The resolution of spectrum coexistence issues between DoS and DoT is proving to be tougher.
Officials from the two departments, along with other stakeholders, have met at least twice in the Bangalore headquarters of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) to discuss the issue and find ways to settle it.
DoS officials suggested the DoT put a guard, or buffer, band of 5Mhz on either side of the BWA spectrum to ensure that there is no interference from BWA operations on satellite communications.
“This cannot be done as Wimax operators need a minimum of 20MHz (2x10MHz as per Wimax forum standards) to operate and by putting the guard band on each side, only 10MHz of the 20MHz slot that is being auctioned would become usable,” said a senior DoT official, who didn’t want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
“We have suggested that newer technologies be implemented where we can put filters (on the telecom towers) in place so that interference is minimized,” he added.
These new technologies can be implemented in the MSS terminal design by DoS so that no guard band is needed and Wimax operators can mount ceramic filters on the tower so that interference is minimized. MSS terminals are devices that use satellites for communications such as satellite phones.
“If a guard band is put then the government will only be able to auction half the spectrum it had earlier planned to auction, and also then halving the minimum expected revenue from the auction,” another DoT official added.
The government is expected to auction 20MHz of BWA spectrum across the country for a reserve price of Rs2,020 crore. If it only auctions 10MHz, this minimum expected revenue will come down Rs1,010 crore for every slot, the second official said.
According to a back-of-the-envelope calculation done by Mint, every 1MHz of BWA spectrum in India can support about 1.4 million Wimax subscribers, who in turn are expected to provide revenue of around $150 (Rs7,320) each annually, showing that an operator can earn a maximum of $210 million per annum per MHz. If the amount of spectrum is reduced, the operators and the government lose revenue proportionately. The government stands to earn a share of the operators’ revenue as well as taxes.
Around two months ago, DoT constituted a committee comprising officials from DoT and DoS, as well as experts from the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Japan’s ministry of internal affairs and communications.
According to the second DoT official, the Japanese expert shared results of a simulation with the committee that showed there was a very minimal probability of 3% of exceeding permissible level of interference between satellite terminals and BWA terminals.
“The FCC and the Japanese experts recommended that there should be no spectrum wasted on guard bands and such,” the official said. “Even then we suggested a 3MHz guard band that would not impact the capacity of the DoS spectrum.”
With a guard band of 3MHz, such a probability would be as low as 1.28%, according to the Japanese expert.
“The DoS has agreed to all this in principle but it all depends on the tests being carried out in Bangalore,” the official said.
Both departments had agreed to start testing the filter technology as well as check the magnitude of interference in Bangalore under the supervision of experts from IISc. The tests are yet to begin, the DoT officials said.
In a recent letter to the nine-member empowered group of ministers (eGoM) headed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, Isro chief G. Madhavan Nair said that interference from the Wimax services could “severely affect the very sensitive satellite services in the adjacent band”. The letter was reviewed by Mint.
The eGoM has been constituted to settle all outstanding issues associated with the auction of spectrum for so-called third-generation, or 3G, mobile phone services and BWA. The group will take a final call on the reserve price for 3G and Wimax spectrums as well as decide on the number of companies to be allowed to offer these high-end services.
The government expects to raise combined revenue of around Rs35,000 crore from the auction of 3G and BWA spectrum.
“This delay has been going on for some time now and there is a significant lack of connectivity in many parts of India,” said Nareshchandra Singh, principal research analyst at information technology research and advisory firm Gartner Inc. “Wired line is not a viable option as the laying of cables requires significant investment. To reach the government’s broadband targets, wireless technologies like Wimax are very important.”
“If the department of space has had such a problem, the government should explore other communication technologies like they have done with the defence forces,” Singh added.