I believe there is unanimity in recognizing that telecommunications industry by providing necessary connectivity to India en masse proved to be a lifeline to the country during lockdowns where almost all non-field workers have been forced to work from home (WFH). The second wave has reinforced the economy’s dependence on digital connectivity everywhere. It is thus quite natural for the Indian telecom industry to expect the government to appreciate and recognize the critical role of this vital industry and extend all possible help in strengthening this vital industry.
The purpose of this article however is not to reiterate demand for concessions and reliefs like reduction in various levies and taxes in light of already high fiscal deficit. Instead, the purpose is to discuss what the government can and must do to fulfill its objective of being a digital economy. For this, I believe the state will have to ensure availability of decent broadband connectivity at every touch point and for every citizen – be it at residences, places of work, or public areas as soon as possible.
A few fact points need attention here.
One, there is not even a remote possibility of providing the real broadband i.e. wireline with optic fiber connectivity to each such touch point. Too expensive, economically unviable, too time consuming and a logistic nightmare (with all that digging and Right-of-Way permissions).
Two, 4G with constraint of spectrum and thereby capacity is and will be great for coverage and low speed broadband, but not certainly the speeds desired by a large section of population – especially as WFH in full or in part is likely to be a new norm post COVID. For this a large percentage of office workforce will necessarily require reasonably high speed broadband at their new work places – homes.
Three, that as a corollary the solution will have to be Wireless.
Club this fact with the need for India to strategically keep pace with rest of the world on 5G and thereby keep pace with rapidly developing and evolving digital world and the answer is introduction of 5G now and not after a few years. For this, the government has to step in since under the current disposition where more than ₹40,000 crore will be required per operator to take 100 MHz of 3500 MHz spectrum which is considered absolute must for a decent 5G mobile network. Under the current financial health of the sector, it looks unlikely that any operator will be able to buy such spectrum at these reserve prices.
National Digital Communication Policy 2018 (NDCP 2018) clearly states that the aim of the government is to spread broadband across the country as soon as possible and not maximization of revenue. In keeping with this policy and the existing dire need for wireless broadband as discussed above, here is a suggestion to achieve both the aims.
Government must immediately provide 25 to 30 MHz of 5G spectrum to the existing operators, free of any one-time charge, who are willing to commit to clearly specified rollout conditions and targets for Fixed Wireless Broadband on 5G. The operators accordingly would not have to incur very large CapEx that would be required for a ubiquitous mobile network on 5G – especially when on a mobile network there neither are too many use cases as yet nor are inexpensive handsets available.
Instead, the operators would be able to selectively choose clusters with higher concentration of demand for Fixed Wireless Broadband. 5G network so rolled out would be supplemented with outdoor device and in-building Wi-Fi to ensure very good quality indoor reception of signal and high broadband speeds.
The overall CapEx and CapEx per customer will be much more economically feasible.
With this approach, India will enter 5G era virtually at the same time as rest of the world; will fulfil the big gap on availability of decent speed broadband at very large number of touchpoints; be absolutely ready to deploy fully mobile 5G networks in a few years as more use cases emerge; the government will immediately start earning additional revenue from increased revenue of operators; telecom industry will get much needed additional revenue and the scarce capital will get spent on networks rather than on spectrum.
For this, of course the government will need to overcome the argument that would be raised by naysayers that the government would have to forego a large one-time spectrum charge. The reason is simple, such revenue by way of auction of 5G spectrum is unlikely to come anyway to the government at rates specified any time soon – at least for the next few years by when reserve prices would have to fall to a fraction.
On balance, there cannot be a better win-win situation for the consumer, the Indian digital dream, telecom industry and the exchequer.