New Delhi: In a scathing report on the state of broadband in India, the telecom regulator has called for an almost complete overhaul of the structure put in place by the government for connecting the country.

India ranks 113th in wireless broadband penetration, 125th in fixed broadband, 75th in terms of household penetration in developing markets and is among the 42 least connected countries in the world, according to the report by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai).

In ICT (information and communications technology) access, use and skills, India ranks 129th, behind countries like Sri Lanka (116), Sudan (122), Bhutan (123) and Kenya (124), the report said.

“India is one of the worst-connected countries in the world by any metric," Trai chairman Rahul Khullar said.

Trai said the reason for the dismal state of broadband in India cuts across the entire ecosystem for connecting the country. These include issues related to the treatment of spectrum; infrastructure (including towers, optical fibre and back haul spectrum) as well as right of way (RoW) issues.

As part of a consultation process that began on 24 September, Trai has released a raft of recommendations on what needs to be done to fix broadband. A recent study by Ericsson found that doubling of broadband speeds increases national economic output by 0.3%.

These include an incentive to operators of fixed-line broadband networks in the form of an exemption from paying a fee on the revenue they earn for five years. Trai called for a complete revamp of the multi-institutional structure that’s overseeing the building of a National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN).

NOFN, a project initiated in 2011, is estimated to have connected less that 10% of the targeted gram panchayats (village councils) so far. The project aims to connect 250,000 village councils by the end of 2016, but has missed its target of completing the roll-out in the first 50,000 panchayats by March 2015.

“It is a known fact that we are far behind the world in penetration and technology used for the service, both for wired and wireless. The world is talking about 5G now and we are still struggling with 3G technologies," said Hemant Joshi, a partner at consultancy firm Deloitte Haskins and Sells Llp.

“The speeds mandated by the government are also far behind the rest of the world. That is a known fact," he added. “But it is not necessarily a hopeless situation. The growth in Internet accounts is a good indicator of that. The government’s Digital India initiative that promises expenditure of $80 billion is expected to significantly change things for the better. It will take time, but the signs point to a positive turn."

Trai suggested that the wireless planning and coordination wing of the department of telecommunications, which is the custodian of all wireless radiowaves in the country, be converted into an independent statutory body reporting to Parliament or any other existing statutory body.

Other recommendations include the implementation of spectrum audits to check for unused spectrum across all organizations including the railways, defence forces and national broadcaster Doordarshan, in the next six months.

“India has 40% of the spectrum that any other country has. There are only two ways to fix this: either by making more spectrum available or by using it far more efficiently," Trai chairman Khullar said.

The regulator said the present use of spectrum available with government agencies should be reviewed to identify areas where spectrum can be refarmed.

Trai also said the government should not delay issuing the guidelines for spectrum trading and sharing, suggesting that a decision be taken by July.

It also recommended that cable operators be allowed to resell bandwidth acquired from licensed Internet services providers and that cable services in smaller cities and towns be digitized in a time-bound manner.

On problems regarding RoW, the regulator called for the creation of an online single-window clearance system. RoW is a right to place wires above and below both public and private property to digitally connect any area

On satellite communication, Trai has suggested that the licensor, regulator and operator functions be separated to conform to international practices of free markets, so as to make availability of broadband using VSAT (very small aperture terminal) easier. This is needed as there are parts of the country that can not be connected by fibre due to geographic difficulties, Khullar said.

VSAT is a device that connects with the Internet using satellite networks.

Trai also said that the government needs to encourage local and foreign companies to build data centre parks on the lines of industrial parks and special economic zones.

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