Spectrum reform, the need of the hour

Rekha Jain | Updated on May 17, 2019

Spectrum audits of the government and public users would identify unutilised spectrum, to be auctioned to service providers

It is well accepted that mobile Internet and broadband accelerate economic growth. In 2017, the Internet contributed nearly 4 per cent to Indian GDP.

It is estimated that eight out of the 13 million SMEs and 200 million individuals will transact online.

Developments in technologies such as LTE/4G/5G provide greater speed of access, more bandwidth than earlier generations and hence make possible innovative uses and applications with consequent economic growth.

For these services to be available to citizens of the country, it is important that at the national level, relevant spectrum bands are identified, and streamlined processes are put in place for allocating them to different service providers/users in a timely manner.

Proper regulation and management of spectrum at the national level is more critical in India, as mobile is by far the predominant method (>95 per cent) of Internet access.

Wasted opportunity

Since spectrum is a natural, perishable resource, unutilised or inefficiently used spectrum is a wasted economic opportunity.

In India, although a transition from a command and control framework to a more open process for spectrum regulation has happened, the path has been slow and bumpy.

Spectrum availability for commercial services continues to be constrained in relation to other countries.

One of the reasons for this state is that spectrum that was allocated to various public agencies was done administratively, and there was no proper framework to “refarm” the existing users to different bands or ensure that it was optimally utilised.

“Refarming” often requires investments in new network equipment and end user devices. Many agencies did not have the financial resources or a policy directive to enable them to switch to a different band or the more efficient digital mode.

Spectrum audits

Spectrum audits, especially of government and public users, could identify unutilised spectrum. Such agencies may not have an orientation to effective usage as they may have been allocated spectrum in the past at nominal charges or free. The audit could also lead to the digitisation of existing services, freeing some spectrum.

To recognise the market potential/price, the released spectrum could be auctioned to service providers.

This mechanism called incentive auction creates a win-win situation for both the seller and the service provider who can exploit the released spectrum for commercial opportunities. The auction proceeds may then be used by the seller to go digital.

Without such spectrum audits and incentive auctions, it may be difficult for public agencies to make available the spectrum that they are not using or “refarm” to another band. Incentive auctions have been used effectively in the US and UK, especially for the release of spectrum from erstwhile broadcast services to mobile services.

In India, spectrum audit studies have hardly been done.

Even when it is known that there is unused spectrum with agencies, it is difficult to get them to “vacate” the spectrum for other uses. A case in point is that of broadcast spectrum.

The I&B Ministry has been very slow in digitisation. Doordarshan (DD) has a monopoly in terrestrial services.

Since 2003, when I&B came up with a plan for Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) until now, the service has not been commercially deployed, despite the significant investments in equipment.

The very limited number of channels that have been provisioned (compared to more than 600 on C&S networks), the need for a DTT specific set-top boxes, and the already high rate (98 per cent) of penetration of cable and satellite (C&S) services in TV owning households are impediments.

DD’s spectrum

While DD has largely ceased analog terrestrial transmission, its DTT platform is yet to take off, leaving the spectrum unutilised.

DD also has a free DTH scheme (DD Free Dish – DDFD), where the dish and STB are subsidised and programming is free. DDFD has seen reasonable adoption.

This further creates impediments for DTT adoption.

Moreover, as per DD’s plans, DTT has an urban focus. However, the raison-d’etre for DD was to provide access in rural areas which are commercially unviable.

Review of the role of DTT in the current Indian scenario, where urban users, anyway have competing platforms of C&S, wired Internet and mobile to choose from, could release more than 80 MHz of bandwidth for mobile services. But the I&B Ministry has been reluctant to review this and has plans to further expand its non-existent DTT services.

As exemplified above, in order to have more spectrum commercially available and accelerate Internet use, India needs a review of its spectrum management and regulatory policies.

The Wireless Planning and Coordination Wing (WPC) under the DoT does not have the required visibility to do so on its own.

Set up inter-ministerial group

As a first step, an inter-ministerial group with representation from concerned agencies, both public and private needs to be put in place.

An action orientation and a well-laid out road map are necessary.

Recommendations from previous such groups and task force have remained only on paper. Industry associations and citizens need to lobby for such reforms as these are also beneficial to them.

The writer is Professor in Information Systems area at IIM Ahmedabad and Executive Chair, IIMA-Idea Telecom Centre of Excellence. Views expressed are personal

Published on May 17, 2019

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