Spectrum for aam aadmi

R. Sundaram
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Policy must promote telephony instead of squabbles. — H. Vibhu
Policy must promote telephony instead of squabbles. — H. Vibhu

Now that the 2G auction results are out, predictably the spotlight is once again on the CAG, who totted up colossal figures of presumptive losses arising out of the 2G spectrum allocation two years ago. The Government has chosen to take on the CAG and its criticism of first-come-first-served policy, in the wake of its recent 2G auction, which was a damp squib.

However, the issue of consumer priorities in distributing spectrum has largely been given the short shrift in telecom policy debates. It appears that the financial shenanigans have grabbed far too disproportionate a space in the discourse compared with an objective economic and financial analysis of the issues involved.

I do not think anyone should disagree if the government sets an objective of providing access to mobile telephony to even the poorest of the poor. One cannot also demur, if the government cannot set up its own network using its own money to enable it to give it free, like, say, free rice.

The best it can do is distribute it to companies who are willing to install the necessary infrastructure and roll out the services within a reasonable time, even if it knows that such companies are not going to do the same for lofty objectives of social or economic empowerment of the poor.

Communication, at any price

The Economist in its November 10-16 issue describes “the sacrifices poor make in Kenya just to keep their mobile phone”.

Raising the question as to how useful can a mobile phone be to someone living on less than $2.5 a day, the World Bank’s standard of poverty, it answers the same by quoting researchers in Kenya who find people skipping a meal or going on foot instead of riding a bus “to keep their phones in credit”.

When the weekly wage of a Kenyan labourer can be as low as a dollar, this sacrifice may amount to 84 cents. “Some would forego meat at meal time, in the hope of sending an SMS that would enable them to put more food on the table”.

Considering that access to mobile phone is such an essential tool even to fight off hunger, it is sad that most of us here are putting brakes on the spread of telephony by squabbling over procedures.

Speaking for myself, I wish spectrum under 3G had been allotted directly on the same basis as 2G (of course without resorting to any dirty trick). If it were so I would be happily subscribing to 3G today, whereas I now dread that my service provider will somehow trick me unwittingly into switching to 3G, leaving me with exorbitant post-paid bills.

Focus on the aam aadmi

Allotment is best done in a transparent manner under the first-come-first-served policy. All that has happened in the spectrum allocation scene should not deter us from demanding a policy that places the consumer interest foremost.

We need not exult either in the financial success of 3G auctions in 2010, or bemoan the feeble offerings in subsequent auctions. These are but temporary aberrations. What we need always are low and stable usage charges for the aam aadmi.

(The author is a retired Member, Ordnance Factories)

(This article was published on November 16, 2012)
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