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TV Ramachandran
President,
Broadband India Forum

Digital Infrastructure Comprises Several Vital Elements

Optic fiber, E and V band, Satcom, public wi-fi, and towers – all essential to build Digital India

Slowly but surely, Digital India, where every Indian is digitally empowered and information is digitally available, is unfolding. The flagship program of the Government of India is about empowering people, generating employment opportunities, promoting entrepreneurship, and most importantly, enhancing the overall quality of life. For instance, Digital India will go a long way in ensuring access to essential healthcare and education. According to a report by the United Nations, 74 percent of doctors are in urban areas that serve 28 percent of the population while the rest 26 percent serve the rural population (72 percent). As per the Annual Status of Education Report, nearly one fourth of rural India’s youngsters aged 14–18 cannot read their own language fluently. This gap can be bridged through digital enablement.

The importance of ubiquitous digital infrastructure for efficient delivery of both traditional and modern services cannot be overstated. Although India’s mobile broadband (MBB) penetration has witnessed an impressive growth over the last couple of years, it is significantly lower than many of the developing markets. There is therefore great urgency for creating a good digital infrastructure in a ubiquitous manner. For a highly diverse country with varying geographies and many remote and inaccessible parts, ubiquity demands a holistic approach to infrastructure. While towers and antennae would remain a major element, the role of optic fibers would be further enhanced to an all-pervasive, essential status and the importance of public wi-fi hotspots, E&V band Wireless Fiber, would assume high proportions. As India moves forward achieving a vision of transforming India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy, the need for large investments in all types of digital infrastructure is imperative. Digital infrastructure needs to increase threefold in the next five years to help achieve the goal of trebling GDP to USD 7.5 trillion over the next five years. This requires investment to the tune of USD 100 billion in digital infrastructure.

MBB Penetration By Country (December 2017)

Source: GSMA Intelligence, Analysys Mason, 2018.

The availability of more than one type of digital infrastructure at any one place helps ensure that there is no dependency on just one system and switching traffic is easier between them in case of emergencies or disasters, natural or otherwise. This is essential for India.

Elements Of Broadband Infrastructure

Broadband is at the heart of the draft National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) released in May 2018. The policy addresses broadband infrastructure as its very first objective – Connect India. The Policy rightly recognizes that the digital era cannot happen without India marching toward the Fiber First initiative that constitutes setting out a system of optical fiber links throughout the nation for fast internet. Laying of 274,246 km of optic fiber connecting 1.15 lakh gram panchayats under BharatNet, steady increase in number of base stations and towers, the massive push to increase fiberization of towers, the tremendous thrust to link up homes with fiber (FTTH) – all these initiatives are humungous by any global standard. Success in these will greatly decide the course of modern India. It must be admitted that the task is daunting and formidable. We are starting from quite a backward situation and need to exert superhuman efforts to help bridge the huge yawning gap in digital infrastructure in comparison with other leading nations.

The United States of America has installed over 400 million km of fiber for less than one-third of our population and China has over a billion km of fiber, while India has deployed only about a 100 million km; that is just a tenth of what they have achieved. While India deploys only 15 million km of fiber per year, China adds about 150 million km of fiber per year. Thus, the existing gap only keeps getting wider and wider every year and India is falling further behind. Even the current 250 million Indian 4G subscribers are greatly underserved and increasing fiber optic networks is the optimal solution.

India aims to be at the forefront in 5G that is to commence rollout by 2020. There is much excitement in the regulatory industry and academia ecosystem, but there are also formidable handicaps to be overcome. The percentage of fiberization of mobile towers is an example. While comparable regimes like the United States of America and China have over 80 percent of their towers fiberized, India experiences the inverse – only around 20–25 percent of towers are fiberized. For 5G, 100 percent of towers would need to be fiberized. Another aspect not much realized is that, with 5G, the requirement of macro-towers would reduce but that of micro-towers and so-called street furniture would rise sharply with attendant optic fiber and wireless fiber connectivity requirements. These could present fresh rollout challenges.

Fiber may not reach all these places. There is a need to deploy reliable high-speed BB services in the quickest possible time to distribute digital fruits. Alternate and cost-effective technologies are the only solution to build inclusive Digital India. E and V band technologies are rolled out the world over to build high-capacity BB networks in both urban and rural areas. The reference to E and V bands in the draft policy under promoting next-generation access technologies is an encouraging sign; in view of the huge data growth and the need for quantum growth of broadband and digital communications infrastructure, the government should recognize the need for opening up unrestricted, delicensed access to the entire V band from 57 to 71 GHz and not up to 64 GHz only.

The country is also seriously deficient in much needed public wi-fi hotspots. Evidence from international markets indicates a strong demand for public wi-fi networks. Developed markets such as the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and France have 30 percent of their total public data offloaded to public wi-fi networks.

Data Traffic On Handsets Offloaded Through Public Wi-fi Networks

Source: Analysys Mason 2018.

The following graph demonstrates India’s position against 34 other nations, big and small, and is illustrative of a simple truth. At approximately 2.68 hotspots for every 100,000 people (or one hotspot for approximately 37,500 people), India fares far poorly in comparison to other nations. Nigeria, South Africa, and the United States of America all have far more impressive averages than India at 7.25, 27.17, and 51.86 hotspots per 100,000 people respectively.

The following graph illustrates the relative positions of these nations when compared for the rollout of hotspots as a function of land mass. India performs poorly here also.

The draft NDCP targets to supply 5 million wi-fi hotspots by 2020 and 10 million by 2022. For India to reach today’s global average of 1 hotspot for 150 persons, India would need another 8 million hotspots. Liberalization of public wi-fi policy is a refreshing new approach that is direly needed in India. A positive and pragmatic regulatory framework for the wi-fi industry is a must as it ensures that the demand and supply ecosystems are adequately empowered, undue restrictions to innovation are removed while investments and partnerships are encouraged.

Another area of under-exploited potential for digital inclusion in India is that of satellite communications. There is little realization that 10 Gbps of data bandwidth is going waste all over India from satellites while rural India remains starved of connectivity. Satcom is quick and economical to deploy in rural areas as compared to terrestrial technologies. There is enormous scope for improvement in the area of Satcom, which can become far more affordable through the adoption of modern technologies and through optimized policies and regulation. For the first time, this unexploited sector has received elaborate and fair treatment in the NDCP.

Cost Of Roll-Out Of Terrestrial Technologies In Dispersed Areas Increases With Remoteness

Implementation of NDCP in letter and spirit will play a crucial role in ensuring ubiquitous broadband in India. To achieve the stated goals, there is a need for creation of a national mission for sustainable digital infrastructure which embraces all the elements described above which should concomitantly have a digital infrastructure fund to provide low cost access to the large funds required. Achievement of Digital India could be a serious challenge without this mission and the fund.

Author is Hon. Fellow of IET(London) and President of Broadband India Forum. Views are personal. Research inputs provided by Garima Kapoor.

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