Opinion

Broadband through cable networks

TV Ramachandran KV Seshasayee | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on April 26, 2017

Cable is news A new era for broadband in India   -  flegere/shutterstock.com

Thanks to its affordability and ubiquity, cable broadband could revolutionise internet communication in India

Cable is a powerful source for broadband delivery that has not been tapped adequately in our country. However, strangely enough, cable is the medium that is making one gigabytes per second (gbps) speed wired broadband connectivity a reality in India. There have been efforts by some multiple-system operators to provide broadband that are gathering steam, and now that they are seeing this as a fast-growing and profitable area.

In North and Latin/South America, Australia, China and Israel, to name just a few, aerial fibre and coax cables are common, transmitting cable and pure internet protocol (IP) signals.

The best example is of Google Fiber, which is providing gigabyte access to consumers, using gigabyte broadband on aerial fibre in cooperation with cities in the US. Many US cities have constructed and leased out dark fibre systems to all comers — telcos, ISPs, cable operators, etc.

Connecting via cable

In India, cable TV industry now connects over 100 million households. It has tremendous reach, deep into urban and rural areas with last-mile access in over 100 million homes and over 1500 towns. Majority of homes are reached by MSOs via fixed line coaxial cable, which can be quickly upgraded to carry high-speed broadband.

Cable broadband offers a host of benefits over regular DSL (digital subscriber line) technology. These include higher speeds, more reliability and higher peak rates for downloads. Direct internet over cable has become very popular as it is less expensive, quick to deploy and easier to handle.

However, there are two issues, one is that the unstructured aerial cable method, while cheap, quick and adequate, could pose problems in bad weather and it is better to have permission from municipalities or discoms to lay aerial cable over electricity poles.

The second is that despite gazette notification by the Government, the Right of Way (RoW) and inexpensive digging permissions for underground ducting and fibre deployment, are yet to be fully implemented by the local bodies and State governments.

Join hands

For accelerated growth of cable broadband, a harmonised effort is required by the industry, policy makers, regulators and other stakeholders. Local bodies need to be encouraged to set up common ducting where a large fibre bundle can be deployed that can be leased by them to all users, particularly data providers — cable, telco and ISP.

This circumvents the RoW issue and ensures that everyone will benefit from this infrastructure sharing. Shared common telecom infrastructure (CTI) is also the best available option for proliferating cable broadband in rural areas. An MSO or an LCO (local cable operator) has to apply for a license to provide broadband services over cable or fibre. There are various categories of service authorisation-wise requirements and fees, which range from ₹2 lakh (for district-level ISPs) to ₹15 crore (for all-services players).

Though these license fees may not appear too high as compared to telco licence fees, they are still too prohibitive for cable operators who are small entrepreneurs, used to working with low capex and opex with low returns. Creating entry barriers viz. compulsory high license fees to provide an essential service is perhaps counter-productive.

In comparable regimes of Asia, Africa and South America, licence fees range from as low as 0.15 per cent in South Africa to a maximum of 2 per cent of gross revenues in Pakistan, — average of about 1 per cent of gross revenues. India needs to emulate this. Only thus can the cable route be effectively leveraged to proliferate good quality broadband widely and expeditiously.

Price issues

The next important factor is availability of bandwidth at reasonable price. There is a possible solution and that is to allow BBNL to procure direct access from global ISPs in bulk, which will translate into lower retail prices for all the service providers including the small MSOs and LCOs.

Integrated offerings in the convergent domain of broadcasting and broadband can be provided by LCOs and MSOs to maximise the benefits for all and reduce the cost to the end consumer.

This needs to be facilitated by a convergent or unified regulatory framework. MSOs who provide cable broadband generally have the ISP license and hence the DoT gazette notification issued on November 18, 2016 on Right of Way, applies to them automatically and they merely need to leverage this for rollout.

For MSOs and LCOs who do not have an ISP license, suitable amendment to the gazette notification should be issued, for including them as the beneficiary of the new ROW rules also.

Government needs to actively promote the concept of enabling broadband over cable by conducting nationwide awareness and skill development programmes amongst LCOs and also actively promote wi-fi and other services on cable that will enhance operator revenues and additional bouquet of new services to consumers at a cost effective price and also increase government’s revenues.

Today, India’s broadband connectivity flows predominantly from the mobile sector. But wireless spectrum here is scarce, very crowded and extremely expensive. Data requirements, which are spectrum-hungry, are rising exponentially and expected to be 7 to 10 times higher by 2020.

In such a situation, there is great scope for synergies across fixed and wireless broadband. One way is through data offloading onto cable to reduce pressure on spectrum. This has been shown in studies in both the US and Europe.

Because of its affordability and ubiquity, cable broadband could be, for India, a super-fast highway for broadband communications for most homes and businesses in the foreseeable future. It is, possibly, the single biggest existing and scalable infrastructure which can witness exponential growth in the coming years.

Ramachandran is the president of Broadband India Forum. Seshasayee is founder and president of WIN Broadband. The views are personal

Published on April 26, 2017
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