Ask anyone in traffic-addled Bangalore or Gurugram the distance between two places. You will get your answer in hours, not kilometres. The same rings true in other crowded cities. During peak traffic, the money spent on powerful cars does not matter; a Ferrari travels at the same speed as a Maruti. This situation mirrors the bandwidth woes plaguing India today.

We may buy a 40 Mbps or 100 Mbps package from a mobile or internet provider. Yet, the internet speed you get — the bit rate — fluctuates based on the number of users in the network. You may have a premium subscription to watch video content online, but if too many users congest the network, your video quality downgrades in response. Indian consumers are hungry for more content, particularly high-quality video content. How can public and private stakeholders meet this demand?

In 2022, video will be 80 per cent of all internet traffic. OTT content providers are growing exponentially, but bandwidth has not kept up. Nowadays, many households have several users watching videos on multiple phones and computers. So, if an HD (high definition) video needs a 5 Mbps bandwidth, the requirement is multiplied by the number of users using the same line.

Also, 4K video, the next generation of video quality, is at our doorstep. It will dominate user consumption in the next five years. 4K videos need 10 Mbps per user. Each household will then need 20-30 Mbps, at a minimum. Sure, providers may claim to offer 100 Mbps, but users do not actually see those speeds. To catch up, bandwidth will have to increase.

Content Delivery Networks

Another method of easing internet traffic and improving speeds is CDNs (Content Delivery Networks). CDNs work on a hub-and-spoke model. These networks have central servers that stream content out to edge servers at various junctions worldwide. This set-up increases the speed of video loading on the consumer end. It tracks usage patterns based on locations and keeps in-demand content on standby.

For example, streaming services like Disney-Hotstar anticipate popular movies or shows for Indian audiences and store them on edge servers, near or in India, to deliver them to users faster and with higher quality. However, building these incredibly efficient and connected CDN networks needs investment in a different type of network. CDNs are gathering traction in India but must be accelerated at scale to impact the crores of Indians watching video content.

We need more core and edge servers to ensure speedy transactions without delays and quality downgrades. Core networks need to be terabit networks; access networks need to be gigabit or multi-gigabit networks to carry content traffic loads. Even 4G networks may be inadequate — 5G will dominate. Deploying 5G network in India will ease user congestion and improve video quality.

Regulatory concerns

Another issue causing some confusion among content creators is regulations. The DoT and TRAI oversee the cable TV world. Both exhibit differences regarding the types of permissible content, the tariffs, and other areas. The evolution of digital TV, smart TVs, and the ability for consumers to choose their own channels have led to the use of set-top boxes — a more expensive option for providers and users.

Cable TV operators are also restricted in their ability to offer data on cable networks. These tight rules are a far cry from the industry’s heyday. They have transformed it into a highly regulated high-tech one.

Regulations are like the dance between the brake and accelerator in our car. Too much or too little applied at the wrong time can be disastrous. With OTT content, regulations and censorship are hot topics. For now, OTT providers are responding to the pulse of their audience since the technology makes it possible. Consumers are devouring alternative storylines compared to the cookie-cutter soaps and movies of mainstream cinema.

And this is perfectly reasonable for a fresh, new, and competitive marketplace. OTT providers have fewer barriers to entry than the more traditional cable TV creators. There is a bustling ecosystem of content creators experimenting with various types of homegrown content. Indian talent and storytelling are on the world map. With such an energetic, growing market, policymakers need only step in when there is anti-competitive behaviour, consumer dissatisfaction, or impending market failure, not preemptively.

Complex problems need multi-pronged solutions. For example, widening roads on highways can ease congestion. Another remedy is to build alternative highways or bypasses. Many users may be forced to travel on a specific road each day for lack of resources in their localities. One fix is to create localised hubs of services. But not doing anything is a recipe for disaster as households begin to have more than one car for their needs.

Similarly, ignoring the bandwidth issues plaguing India is not an option. User demand for quality video content is growing rapidly. Improving bandwidth, more CDNs, and strategic regulatory guidance can help the Indian OTT soar with homegrown regional programming.

Ramachandran is President of Broadband India Forum, and Seshasayee is a former President of Hinduja Global. Views are personal