While Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India programme is trying to usher in a digitally empowered society, quality of service (QoS) of the vital telecom and internet infrastructure that powers digitization has not received much attention. Before we embark on deploying 5G technologies and networks, as is being advocated by the telecom regulator, department of telecommunications (DoT), operators and telcos, it is time to step back and assess the associated QoS issues.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the regulatory goal of a telecom service must be to ensure: (i) the delivery of acceptable service for telecommunications users; and (ii) that consumers are aware of the variations in performance from various service providers, thereby allowing them to make an educated choice regarding their preference.

While India relies predominantly on wireless data services, the burgeoning demand for more data and better services is indeed becoming a challenge. According to the Nokia India Mobile Broadband Index 2017, total data payload in the Indian telecom network grew 60% over last year to reach 165 petabytes. Despite the high indices on consumption, India is ranked 89 among 100 countries on average mobile internet connection speed at 4.9 megabits per second (mbps), much behind other Asia-Pacific countries such as Sri Lanka (6.9 mbps) and Thailand (8.6 mbps), according to the Akamai “State Of The Internet" 2017 report. Network outages, frequent call and packet drops, and congested networks unable to allocate capacity result in increased download times and poor coverage.

To ensure quality data services, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) had published QoS regulations for wireless data services in 2012, stating the minimum quality benchmarks for every service provider to adhere to and report. However, Trai itself has admitted in its recent consultation paper on Data Speed Under Wireless Broadband Plans that these measurements and report mechanism have not been beneficial to consumers. QoS measurement of data services and narrowing down of bottlenecks is very different compared to that for voice, due to the inherent “store and forward" characteristics of the internet. Though there are standardized measurements such as Mean Opinion Score (MOS) for internet telephony calls, measurements and metrics for other applications such as video and chat sessions, media streaming and games are still evolving.

The QoS eventually has an impact on the quality of experience (QoE) for consumers. However, in the case of data services, gauging QoE may be quite complex as it is subjective and based on factors of usage such as time of day, type of application, type of subscribers (heavy or light data user), type of subscriber contracts (with varying guaranteed speeds and data limits), location and mobility, to name a few. Owing to consumers persistently complaining about poor QoS/QoE and to enhance transparency, Trai developed and deployed its MySpeed mobile app and associated portal for crowdsourcing connection speeds and other parameters. It crowdsources a wealth of data on QoS parameters such as downlink/uplink speeds, network delay and packet loss, which may be analysed to provide concrete recommendations to the regulator on the bottlenecks and associated corrective measures. However, a robust information disclosure mechanism is much needed, which may aid consumers in knowing the accurate QoS on offer for their broadband services and based on it, enabling informed decision -making. Given the complexity of QoS/QoE metrics and price contracts, a mechanism as simple as a label may provide a possible solution.

“Consumer broadband labels" are very similar to the labels on packaged food products and energy ratings on electric appliances. If published by the service providers, these labels disclose speed, reliability, service limits and conditions, pricing and other information for the offered broadband services to consumers in a standard and easily understandable format. These labels will establish a formal contract on QoS/QoE between a service provider and a consumer. Moreover, it becomes a tool for consumers to compare the services offered by different service providers, while enabling informed decision making.

Such broadband labels already exist in the US and information disclosure statements on similar lines have been mandated in the UK. A similar mechanism, tailored to the Indian scenario, is envisaged to benefit consumers and instil competition on QoS/QoE among service providers, instead of the existing cut-throat competition on prices. For price-sensitive consumers in India, quality is often traded for price. However, minimal price does not serve as a justification for poor QoS. Thus, it has also been suggested by Trai that operators build apps that inform users about the network QoS/QoE. This also suggests that it is imperative to have a buy-in from the operators for the successful implementation of such an information disclosure mechanism.

Now that mobile broadband has become the spine of the “digital economy", it is the right time for us to start an initiative such as this to promote the required transparency and accountability in broadband-service provisioning in the country. Hence, let’s not just restrict ourselves only to the issue of connectivity but ensure it is connectivity associated with quality.

V. Sridhar, Udai Mehta and Rohit Singh are, respectively, professor at IIIT, Bangalore, deputy executive director and policy analyst at CUTS International.

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