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The Rural Broadband Divide

The Rural Broadband Divide

Closing the rural digital divide will require a combination of approaches that reflects the complexity of the challenges of deploying broadband to rural India. Deployment needs to be focused on achieving tangible, affordable universal service to all rural Indians rather than allocated based on profit per population density.

Connecting rural India is the next milestone for India. Despite the government’s efforts, the country’s adoption of broadband in the rural areas hasn’t budged much. This inability to build out the last mile of the 21st century’s digital infrastructure has exacerbated the country’s growing prosperity and opportunity divides – divisions that often fall along urban and rural lines.

It has been estimated that every 10 percent increase in broadband connectivity leads to 1.38 percent increase in gross domestic product. The expansion of broadband in India has not kept pace with the growth seen in mobile telephony. Broadband penetration in India is far from satisfactory limit. Panchayats are the constitutionally managed third tier of government and key institutions for local self government in the rural areas. Coverage of panchayats with broadband internet connectivity has a great potential for empowering rural masses by giving them access to information, public services including those of education and health, and financial inclusion.

The successful launch of India’s next generation high throughput communication satellite, GSAT-11 on December 05, 2018 from Kourou launch base, French Guiana by Ariane-5 VA-246 will play a vital role in providing broadband services across the country. It is expected to provide high-bandwidth connectivity in the country, with data transfer speeds of up to 14 Gbps.Weighing about 5854 kg, GSAT-11 is the heaviest satellite built by ISRO. GSAT-11 is the fore-runner in the series of advanced communication satellites with multi-spot beam antenna coverage over Indian mainland and islands.

The BharatNet project was conceived to ensure broadband connectivity with adequate bandwidth to 250,000 lakh gram panchayats (GPs) of the country using optical fiber. Till December 2017, the government had completed 100,000 GPs under this project in the first phase. In January 2018, it had announced that the second phase would be completed by December 2018, well ahead of the March 2019 deadline. However, as of December 10, 2018, only 116,492 GPs were service-ready. OFC amounting to 302,621 km  had been laid in 121,859 GPs. There was a complete failure of both BBNL and BSNL in executing the project.

Extensive field reports have been received by the Department of Telecom regarding the lack of connectivity in 80-90 percent of the GPs, as well as massive under-utilisation/non-utilisation of the BharatNet infrastructure. Though a clear utilisation target had been set, the actual utilisation on the ground is less than 10 percent of the target.

BSNL has incurred lot of expenditure to equip its field units with required tools and testers to carry out O&M of BharatNet. The PSU has accused BBNL of complete mismanagement and maintains that `617 crore are pending  as dues with BBNL. Assignment of all GP faults summary to BSNL is neither justified nor called for. The optical fiber failures only should be assigned to BSNL. For that purpose it has also sought DoT’s response to segregate the responsibilities. The state operator has told its parent that it is doing maintenance work in many states where it should have been done by PGCIL and RailTel. BBNL had assigned maintenance work of Gujarat, Odisha, Puduchery, Daman, Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli to BSNL, which were supposed to be done by RailTel and PGCIL.

Fiberization of towers is another issue. In India only 22 percent of the telcom towers are fiberized, whereas in the US, China, and Japan more than 75–80 percent of the 470,000 telecom towers are fiberized. Towercos could either deploy fiber to their existing tower base or could take fiber from BharatNet to the towers. This would facilitate wi-fi hotspots (1.2 million hotspots are planned in the next couple of years), and enhance 4G coverage in the country.

Apart from the supply side, demand in rural India is just not forthcoming. The 100,000 gram panchyats where infrastructure has been installed, is facing an issue of not being utilised by the states.

The CII Seminar

Rural Telecom Summit, with the theme, Connect Bharat to the Globe, organised by Confederation of Indian Industry (CII),  was recently held in the Capital.  Aruna Sundararajan, Secretary, Department of Telecom, in her presentation reiterated the government’s commitment to provide connectivity to the villages of India, and disclosed that the government had allocated a budget of `50,000 crore to be invested in BharatNet. “The government is working toward creating a viable model for private players to collaborate with the government initiatives and bring forth the holistic development. The emphasis is on the collaborative approach and responsibility of Central, State Government and industry stakeholders to connect India’s rural and distant regions with the mainstream. The challenges as well as opportunities in connecting and servicing rural India are huge and all concerned will need to come forward together to execute the fiberization of rural India to establish broadband network all around. The objective should be to bring the larger ecosystem under this program,” she added. She exhorted states to use the rural broadband infrastructure being put in place through BharatNet project, and said it will create opportunities for monetization and ensure that the benefits of the network reach the masses. Sunderajan emphasised that a strong connectivity infrastructure will be crucial to ensure success of all ongoing programmes across areas, including health, education, and others.

Umang Das, Summit Chairman and Co-Chairman, CII National Committee on Telecom & Broadband, said that the industry is willing to play its role in digitalizing rural India. Das further said that CII is keen to help DoT in the formation of the National Digital Telecom Policy. He opined that it is the role of the private players to help out the government at multiple levels and bring the competitiveness into the market. Only then will the telco industry collectively be able to offer useful and affordable solutions to the end consumers.

Rajiv Mehrotra, founder and chairman, Vihaan Networks Limited observed that the tele-density in rural India is just 58 percent. He emphasized customised solutions for bringing the unserviced regions under connectivity network. “There is a big divide into urban and rural connectivity and  we must look at local level solutions to mend this gap. These localized solutions will also help bring down the operational cost to a great extent, making the overall business viable for operators and affordable for end consumers,” said Mehrotra.

Sanjay Vidyarthi, Summit Co-Chair and Founder and CEO, Bharat to India Connect, enlightened the delegates with issues faced by sectors like education, healthcare, and agriculture and said that all these issues can be solved with telecom based services. He further said that telecom is critical to solving many problems in rural India. It can also generate thousands of employment opportunities in these regions. He added that all we need to do is to design and deliver a solution-oriented services which are cost effective as well and can bring some change at the ground level.

C.S. Rao, Chairman, USA and India, QuadGen Wireless Solutions Inc, said that there is a huge opportunity existing in the rural market and the only problem is the financial viability of the business. He said, “If we start looking at customising the services specifically designed to cater to these markets, we can solve this issue as well. It is time now to connect rural India with the urban landscape.”

A case study, USA

Broadband is unavailable to roughly 25 million Americans, more than 19 million of which live in rural communities, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The country has set itself an ambitious goal — to eliminate the country’s rural broadband gap by July 4, 2022.

Microsoft has stepped in. For the past 18 months, the company has contributed to this effort through its Microsoft Airband Initiative, a five-year commitment to bring broadband access to two million unserved Americans living in rural communities. During this time, the company learned a lot.

First, that wireless technology can become the bridge that spans this broadband divide — a strategy supported by the adoption patterns for technologies since the early 1900s. Whether it be phone landlines, electricity, cable, or broadband, wired technologies typically plateau at 70 percent penetration in the United States, before requiring decades of additional work and mountains of public money to close the remaining gap. For example, even after 25 years, electricity and cable TV had not climbed above 70 percent.

In contrast, within 25 years the country achieved near-universal adoption of radio and color broadcast television, both of which obviously involved wireless technology. More recently, the pace of adoption for cellphones neared 100 percent in about 14 years and in just eight years for smartphones. Broadband adoption not only lags behind both of these technologies, but is slower than the adoption of radio, more than 70 years ago. This history of wired technology adoption does not bode well for laying fiber optic cable to the distant reaches of our nation.

As the country looks to address 5G technology, it’s clear that it will provide a vital advance for many parts of the nation. But given the nature of the spectrum on which 5G relies, it’s not likely to soon reach the rural areas that currently lack broadband access. For example, today, 13 percent of Americans using mobile devices still can not even access 4G technology.

That is why Microsoft proposes that TV white spaces technology can be a game changer for rural America. Using a mixed model that combines wireless technologies including 4G and TV white spaces, traditional fiber-based connectivity and satellite coverage can dramatically reduce the cost and time of extending broadband access to rural communities across America. Using this approach, the company has struck partnerships in 16 states that will bring broadband connectivity to more than 1 million rural residents who currently lack access.

Second, effective partnerships with telecommunications providers and other groups can continue to accelerate this progress. It is the small- and medium-sized companies in the very communities that Microsoft strives to connect who are closing the country’s broadband gap. Microsoft Airband Initative is in 16 states now, and is expected to be in 25 states this time next year.

As Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer, Microsoft explains, “We see this entrepreneurial and innovative American spirit in an emerging TV white spaces ecosystem that has taken root. We are working with a consortium of component and device makers which are producing affordable, innovative TV white spaces technology for internet service providers (ISPs) and consumers. We are supporting ISPs by providing some funding for upfront capital costs for broadband infrastructure projects with the possibility of recovering our investment through revenue sharing. We then reinvest those funds in subsequent projects to further expand coverage.

When our Airband Initiative was launched 18 months ago, a TV white spaces network connectivity device cost more than USD 800. Today, similar and even higher-quality, and more-capable devices cost less than USD 300. As the price of new technology falls and demand rises, these prices will continue to fall – a critical goal – and this market will become self-sustaining.

Once a community gains access to broadband, it’s again our partners, like the National 4-H Council and the National Future Farmers of America, who help to ensure that local people reap the rewards of connectivity through new digital skills. Through an extensive network of volunteers and professionals, these community nonprofits provide hands-on learning to help these communities participate and thrive in the digital economy.

And third, we have learned that an effective solution to this problem requires targeted but limited public sector help.

This needs to start with acquiring more accurate federal data to measure the problem. We cannot solve a problem that we do not understand. There is strong evidence that the percentage of Americans without broadband access is much higher than the FCC’s numbers indicate. We have seen this over the past 17 months in many places and in many ways, including by talking directly to the people who live in rural America. Their real-world lack of broadband access differs sharply from the picture too often painted by inaccurate data in Washington, D.C.

In addition, the more we have examined alternative data sources, the more we have found additional reasons to doubt the federal government’s broadband data estimates. For example, the Pew Research Center has been tracking internet usage in this country since 2000 through regular surveys. According to their latest data, 35 percent of Americans report that they do not use broadband at home – roughly 113 million people. While availability (estimated by the FCC) and usage (estimated by the FCC) are different, the significant gap between these two numbers raises important questions. It has led us to do more detailed work ourselves based on Microsoft’s data sources, with substantial review by our data scientists and analysts. Their work suggests that the Pew numbers are far closer to the mark.  All of this leaves us with the inescapable conclusion that today there exists no accurate public estimate of broadband coverage in the United States.

We think it’s time to look at how the country spends public money and retarget a small portion of those funds in ways that will close the broadband gap more quickly. To date, almost 90 percent of the money spent by the federal government on rural broadband has been spent on laying fixed lines, primarily fiber-optic cables — a solution that costs at least three to four times more than wireless technologies. We think there is a better way. If the federal government reallocates just a small additional fraction of public money toward incentives for TV white spaces devices, it will help accelerate adoption, bring costs of devices down, and help the ecosystem lift off. None of this funding would go from the government to Microsoft, but it would be available to the telecommunications partners whom we are working to assist.

Moving faster will also require updating federal regulations governing the use of TV white spaces to free up this often unused and plentiful spectrum for rural broadband. Specifically, we are encouraged by the FCC prioritizing broadband and hope it will provide the regulatory certainty needed for rural America’s success.

Finally, this will continue to require expanding partnerships that will spur the economic growth and social equality that broadband can bring. These include new applications, solutions, and ventures across the private sector to help boost yields and lower costs on farms, expand telemedicine to military veterans, and turn local libraries into community hubs of digital learning.

And above all, this requires speed — internet speed. We all need to move faster. It took 50 years to electrify the nation. The millions of Americans waiting for broadband don’t have the luxury of time”.

Are the powers that be in India listening?

“By 2019, there will not be a single village left in the country, which will not be connected with high-speed broadband.”

 

Manoj Sinha
Telecom Minister

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