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Spectrum: the golden goose

Spectrum: the golden goose

The ongoing debate over second-generation (2G) telecom spectrum pricing and distribution has made me reflect on the many overlaps or similarities between the telecom and broadcast sectors.

One commonality that both these sectors ride on is spectrum, known as airwaves.

These electromagnetic waves are considered a natural resource and are public property. Spectrum is used for a wide range of economic, social, cultural, scientific and developmental purposes. It has an enormous number of end-user services that encompass defence or emergency services, and a number of applications that include narrow and broadband mobile telecommunications, broadcasting, aeronautical and marine communications, and scientific applications such as radio astronomy and environmental sensing.

In telecommunications, each subscriber uses spectrum every time she makes a call or sends an SMS or even browses the Internet. In the case of broadcasting (including all its kinds—territorial, satellite and cable), the active utilization of spectrum is only by the broadcaster. Broadcasting is a “one-to-many" communication, done with high-power airwaves over a large area. Therefore, usage and application of the spectrum differ.

This difference— “one-to-one" usage in telecom versus “one-to-many" usage in broadcast—has implications for the cost that users pay for the spectrum. These also need technical and financial expertise to manage and administer. Therefore, there is a cost incurred in utilization of this resource, especially for private or for-profit use.

The fact that spectrum is a non-renewable resource puts a premium on a streamlined process for making it available for purposes that are useful to society. In fact, because spectrum has so many uses, arbitrating among them can be difficult.

Also, any misuse or abuse of this scarce resource can imply severe financial losses. Clearly, such misuse and exploitation are evident in the current scam in telecom spectrum pricing. After all, rights of spectrum use entail a huge amount of money and important players whose future enterprises and control in this sector are at stake. Recently, speaking on the current telecom scam, telecom minister Kapil Sibal attributed it to limited resources (spectrum), lack of dialogue and a transparency deficit.

All these three attributes are also applicable to the prevailing scenario in the broadcasting sector, where spectrum scarcity is already being felt. While all three are critical, let’s just take the first—spectrum as a limited resource. This deficiency is by now discernible for mobile broadcasting.

One way of understanding the telecom scenario is to look at the early orientation of the telecom ministry as geared toward maximising the public good instead of just generating government revenue from available spectrum. This helped the sector. Policy decisions meant to keep services cheap and competitive fuelled our telecom boom, massively increasing teledensity. Mobile telephony in India having reached millions, we are today the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world.

This makes for another parallel with the broadcasting sector. While spectrum is relatively straightforward to obtain in the latter, it was again distributed with the public interest mindset of encouraging more broadcasters. As a result, we see today a unique broadcast scenario, with 600 channels telecasting to 500 million viewers, including 15 million DTH (direct-to-home) subscribers across the country.

However, there is also wastage of precious spectrum on the part of other broadcasting applications. For example, spectrum allocated for radio (both FM and community radio) has yet to be used optimally, mostly due to various policy issues. Also, arbitrary allocation of public airwaves to private broadcasters has raised several contentious issues. Some of these include structural problems in this sector that have resulted in content violations, heavy dependence on advertising and informal distribution systems.

As both these spectrum-based sectors move to the next-generation convergence era, it is essential to address the broader mandates of communication and information. This will require responding to the industry needs of both broadcast and telecom businesses in a comprehensive way to bring about cross-learning between the sectors.

Convergence poses challenges to both the structure of regulation and the instruments used in these two sectors. The absence of a converged regulator allows for the possibility of unequal regulatory treatment of different platforms. Here, there is the issue of technology neutral regulation, in which the regulatory treatment of a particular service, regarding authorization, spectrum, interconnection, universal service and numbering, is the same irrespective of the technology used to deliver it.

Currently, Trai is the telecom regulator and the ministry of information and broadcasting enunciates and implements the laws relating to radio and television broadcasting. However, Trai also covers tariff, interconnection, quality of service, licensing, digitalization and new services in broadcasting. Again, the wireless planning and coordination wing of the ministry is the National Radio Regulatory Authority, responsible for spectrum management, including licensing.

Clearly, the fact that wireless services are outpacing wireline connectivity needs to be considered. The spotlight is now on current modes of spectrum management. With rapid technological innovation and increasing demand for radio frequencies, an effective spectrum policy will, therefore, need to promote the rollout of services, reduce barriers of entry, and encourage innovation.

Effective spectrum management can make a big difference to a country’s prosperity, as it is also a means of income generation—for example, electro-magnetic spectrum contributes approximately 3% to the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP). As wireless technologies become the main means of connecting businesses and households to voice, data and media services, the issue of spectrum will continue to consume all of us.

PN Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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