A strong case for a ‘ministry of spectrum’

A strong case for a ‘ministry of spectrum’

One of the most heartening features of the draft National Telecom Policy (NTP) 2011 is the road map provided for spectrum availability: 300MHz by 2017 and another 200MHz by 2020. However, the taste of the pudding will lie in the government’s ability to make the promised tranches available in a timely manner. This, in turn, depends upon the evolution of structures and processes used to manage spectrum in this country.

Currently, the National Frequency Allocation Plan (NFAP) is the policy document that outlines the allocation of different parts of the frequency spectrum for various purposes. The plan is entrusted to the Wireless Planning and Coordination group in the Union ministry of communications and information technology (MCIT). It is revised every two years. All kinds of radio communication technologies and different ministries use spectrum for various purposes including space communication, radio astronomy, television broadcasting, radio navigation and mobile communication.

The allocation of frequencies to different uses determines the pace at which the country will upgrade to the next generation network, the inclusiveness of telecom penetration, and the opportunities for indigenous manufacturing. Each of these is dependent on the availability of spectrum within certain specific bands. The ability of the department of telecommunications to fulfil its obligations depends on its ability to coordinate between the relevant ministries and negotiate at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which aims to harmonize frequencies to reap economies of scale and align with technological progress.

The process of formulating NFAP is initiated by the floating of a circular by the NFAP committee requesting all stakeholders to present their requests for particular blocks of spectrum. Typical stakeholders include government ministries such as defence, information and broadcasting (I&B), home affairs, as well as private telecom operators and equipment manufacturers. Next, an NFAP review-revision committee invites all the stakeholders for a discussion on the allocation. Often, discussions within the review-revision committee lead to disagreements between different stakeholders. These conflicts typically result in the formation of a group of ministers.

There are two important systemic deficiencies in the current system of frequency allocation. Firstly, MCIT has to adjudicate between different peer ministries, including itself. Examples include the release of the 2.1GHz band from defence for use in 3G, the in-process release of 698-806MHz from I&B for use in 4G, and the release of analog spectrum in the wake of the migration of broadcasting to digital frequencies. This adjudication is often stalled because of the conflict of interest involved and the absence of a suitable adjudicating authority.

Secondly, MCIT is required to lobby with ITU for allocating frequencies in a way that allows us to use the benefit of our indigenous market to develop our telecom equipment manufacturing base. This is a role more suited to the foreign ministry, were that ministry equipped with the necessary technical knowledge and strategic agenda. MCIT, with the tremendous pulls and pressures of the domestic market, may be overburdened with this additional responsibility.

The systemic deficiencies reflect in the observed outcomes. Firstly, most of the changes made in NFAP mimic already existing frequency allocation tables of ITU. Countries such as China along with the Western countries, on the other hand, dictate terms at ITU. Secondly, inter-ministerial disputes are not handled with an appropriate process, causing unnecessary delays and inconsistencies within the frequency spectrum. The three-year delay in the 3G auction is a case in point. The same experience should not be repeated for the release of 4G spectrum from I&B. Thirdly, all private telecom operators are heavily dependent on foreign telecom equipment manufacturers, with little or no initiative to develop an indigenous ecosystem of telecom equipment makers. India imports close to $8 billion worth of telecom equipment a year, including defence telecom equipment. As a result, large international telecom equipment manufacturers may be able to exercise inordinate influence on our strategic decisions. Finally, because of inter-ministerial disputes and the lack of initiative from private firms, development of rural ICT has been languishing.

The ideal governance structure is the formation of a “Ministry of Spectrum" headed by the Prime Minister (PM). The PM has the necessary standing to settle the allocation of spectrum between ministries and to chart out an international campaign to achieve our strategic goals. The new ministry must ensure that India has a say in the global discussions of ITU and is not merely a passive participant in its proceedings. It must promote the development of rural ICT by freeing up more unlicensed commercial spectrum in rural areas and ensuring ministries such as defence and I&B vacate spectrum in a timely manner.

Other countries such as France have recognized the importance of spectrum as a key resource and brought spectrum under the direct supervision of the executive head. The ambitious targets of NTP 2011 necessitate an equally bold rejigging of our spectrum power structures.

Rohit Prasad and Rajat Gururaj are associate professor of economics and student, respectively, at MDI Gurgaon.

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