R. Chandrashekhar | Our goal is to ensure broadband availability

R. Chandrashekhar | Our goal is to ensure broadband availability

New Delhi: With mobile telephony growth well on its way to 100% penetration in India and high-speed 3G services on their way, the government has shifted focus to the penetration of broadband. R. Chandrashekhar, who took charge as secretary at the department of telecommunications (DoT) about two months ago, spoke in an interview about the issues involved in this and also on the areas that one of the largest revenue earning arms of the government will be focusing on under his tenure. Edited excepts:

As with the increasing convergence of technology, do you see a convergence of the departments of IT and telecommunications in the near future?

Earlier, the IT department was called the department of electronics, and this was called communications. The former was renamed and metamorphosed into the department of IT while everything remained the same. The reality of today’s technology world is that IT, telecom and broadcasting, in terms of carriage, are converging. Irrespective of whether they merge into each other, there is going to be an ongoing need for them to work fairly close together.

There is a reasonable level of synergy between the IT and the communication departments, being part of the same ministry. Comparatively, the coordination required with the I&B (information and broadcasting) ministry is much more limited, but there is a need for improvement.

What is the present status of the recommendations on 2G spectrum management made by Trai (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India)?

On 11 May, Trai made its recommendations. There are certain areas where they said they would submit further views, and DoT should wait for these. They have also said the report should be looked at in its entirety and not segmented. Keeping these in mind, though the analysis of the recommendations has begun internally, it is not going to be completed till the final recommendations are available as Trai’s views are interconnected. DoT has itself not taken a view. However, there are groups within DoT that have been tasked to look at the recommendations, so that once the final recommendations are available, the department will take the shortest time possible to come to a decision.

The reports of DoT-ordered audits of the telecom service providers have been received by the department. Are there any penalties or consequences in terms of policy changes or clarifications due to the findings in the audit reports?

I am not aware of any issue that has come out of the audits which warrants any specific action that falls within the regulatory powers of the department itself. We have not arrived at any specific issue as yet that warrants any action by DoT.

Certainly, where there are generic issues that are coming up in terms of interpretation of what a provision means today...that is something that we would have a look at, and whenever it is clear from the governmental perspective, clarifications will be issued.

There is a lot of grey area concerning BlackBerry and other encrypted messaging services. What is the government doing to close all security loopholes in the country’s communications network?

There is a whole class of services, not just BlackBerry, that more or less have a similar set of issues as far as security goes. These issues are being dealt with by DoT on a broader basis. This is being done in consultation with the technology service providers. After taking their suggestions and taking into account the country’s security requirements, we will try to find a meeting ground and get all the aspects of the issue resolved.

We have to see whether there can be a complete solution, or whether there is a gap between what is possible and what is required, and then we have to decide on the course of action.

The target for broadband connections in the country will be missed by the government. Why? What are you doing to minimize the shortfall?

The targets earlier thought of 20 million broadband connections by 2010. As it happens, at this point we are closer to 10 million. But the more important point, from a national perspective, is that unlike in the case for normal telephone or mobile coverage, where one would be interested in knowing how many people have access, in the case of broadband we need to look at what is the coverage available. The difference is that here you are looking at what is the area in which broadband is available, by whatever means— wireline, wireless, 3G, Wimax, etc. The point is whether broadband has been made available ubiquitously. This is different from asking how many people are using; that comes second. If you have not made it available, then the question of someone using it does not arise.

On the other hand, if you have made it available, then that does not mean that someone is using it—that is a function of more than just availability. There is the requirement of services so people would use it. There is a whole ecosystem that does that, connectivity is only one part.

In the urban areas, broadband penetration would be driven by commercial forces depending on the population density pattern, thereby requiring very little government support. But here, the price point is a major factor...growth reaches a momentum only at a critical mass, which is based on the price point. This can be seen from the mobile segment.

The plans for connecting with broadband are well on their way. The other gaps, I believe that there is enough of dynamism and innovation in the market that should fill in the gaps once the connectivity is take care of.

India is far behind other countries in terms of equipment manufacturing despite having an early lead. Is the government looking at taking any steps in this regard?

In the case of manufacturing, there are many impediments that we have. There are many factors—infrastructure (power, water supply, transport, ports, airports) in general is very weak as compared to many other countries. And equally important is the availability of all these at very competitive costs. There is enough data to quantify the deficiency in terms of concrete disadvantages. The cost of finance, there are huge differences with other countries.

There are studies that have quantified that the country has an 8% disadvantage as compared to other countries when it comes to domestic manufacturing.

The second deficiency is that a lot of these areas are covered under various trade obligations and agreements with various countries. These remove the possibility of having a duty barrier to encourage domestic manufacturing. When you have a situation where domestic manufacturing has these disadvantages, then it is quite obvious that business sense would push manufacturing to happen in other countries.

One critical question to ask is why is any manufacturing happening in India at all. Is there something that we have that we can build upon. As it turns out, there are; and that is where a lot of work went into the manufacturing task force set up by the government.