Be nice and share — that was the advice our parents gave when we were young. Nevertheless, our actions when outside the gaze of authority, ranged from outright selfishness and free sharing within small closed groups or ‘gangs’ to, occasionally, generous give-and-take.

Professors Barry Nalebuff and Adam Brandenburger assure us that business is about co-opetition, a carefully calibrated dance of competition and cooperation whose rules every CEO must grasp.

In the field of telecommunication we have seen this dance being played out in the practice of tower-sharing, even in the midst of aggressive price competition that followed the entry of a large number of new players in 2008.

The possibilities of sharing have expanded again with the guidelines on spectrum-sharing and Virtual Network Operators  released by the department of telecommunication (DoT).

However, even this sharing is limited to licensed spectrum, that is, spectrum assigned to and held by private parties. It is like children sharing toys, but with their names clearly marked on them.

A further push

Now a new development promises to push the envelope of co-opetition once again. Telcos that are big players in urban markets, where data usage is expected to accelerate exponentially, are entering into a variety of institutional arrangements to enable their subscribers take advantage of high capacity wi-fi networks. Such networks operate in the unlicensed spectrum band, where there are no private property rights.

The arrangements for data offload to unlicensed spectrum bands range from the telcos themselves setting up wi-fi access networks to third party service providers providing such services. Some telcos have come together to set up such third party service providers, in the same manner that they collaborated to set up independent tower companies.

A certain amount of regulatory uncertainty remains to be cleared. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in its recommendations in January 2015 excluded tower companies from licensing regulations and associated fees. However, the provision of wi-fi access might not be construed as passive infrastructure like a telecom tower, since it provides capacity. Hence, the ambivalence regarding the mode of regulation.

Lagging behind

Events in India lag behind developments in the rest of the world. The use of spectrum as a common property resource had its origins in the 1985 decision of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to open up 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands for unlicensed use. These bands previously had limited use for unlicensed devices such as microwave ovens.

In the late 1980s, vendors collaborated with the IEEE in an attempt to establish a common standard. The basic specifications of the IEEE 802.11 standard were agreed upon in 1997. Wi-fi has become ubiquitous today for connecting mobiles, tablets and laptops to the internet. The speed of Wi-Fi access points has increased 100 times from 11 mbps in 1997 to over 1gbps now. The number of public wi-fi hot spots worldwide has almost doubled from 3.3 million in 2013 to more than 6 million now; the number of private hotspots stands at close to 700 million today.  

Till the recent initiative by telcos, wi-fi spectrum in India was mainly used to provide wireless access within homes. Public wi-fi is restricted to deployment in restaurants, airports  and coffee shops.

Today, wi-fi handoffs enabled by telcos in India are user-initiated. Our research shows that users are hesitant about such arrangements for a variety of reasons including inertia, concerns on security, and operational glitches. One expects that in India, as in many other jurisdictions, wi-fi handoffs automatically triggered by the telcos through procedures such as SIM-based authentication will become a standard feature of network management, leading to a possible decrease in the price of mobile data services.

So far, telcos have stayed away from such arrangements, even though technically feasible, due to a number of considerations including sunk costs in licensed spectrum, and unavailability of fixed line broadband for backhaul. The entry of a major operator with deep pockets and aggressive business plans could well be a factor in the recent interest in wi-fi of the incumbents. Local loop unbundling by the government operator, a longstanding industry demand, will ease the bottleneck on wi-fi backhaul.

New developments

Until recently, wi-fi networks worldwide have only been useful over small geographical areas due to the high frequency bandwidths over which they operate.   However, exciting technological developments adapting wi-fi technologies for long ranges are well under way. The IEEE 802.11af standard that enables wi-fi-like networks in VHF and lower UHF bands (54-700 MHz)  is being adopted by many countries.

Another complementing standard is IEEE 802.11ah that operates in the unlicensed portions of the 900 MHz band (for example, 902-928 in the US), and is tailored for communications related to the internet of things (IoT) with a radius of around 1 km, much higher than that provided through normal wi-fi networks.

Doordarshan, the operator to whom a large portion of this range of frequencies has been assigned on an exclusive basis, is not using most of the frequencies in its control — hence, the potential of allocating parts of this band for unlicensed use. For example, if four TV channels (each with 6 MHz bandwidth) are released for unlicensed use, IEEE 802.11ah can potentially provide up to 500 Mbps over a 1-km radius. Regulatory and policy intervention for the release of such bands for unlicensed usage is imperative.

It is expected that around 22 per cent of India’s population will use smartphones by 2018. This, along with technology advancements in the area of IoT , and the development of smart cities as envisioned by the Government, will generate a huge demand for network capacity. Learning to share spectrum in the wi-fi and super wi-fi bands is no longer child’s play but vital to the success of our development goals.

Prasad is a professor at Management Development Institute, Gurugram, and Sridhar at International Institute of Information Technology, Bengaluru