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HomeArticlesBroadbandLast Mile Challenge Are we achieving our objective of Digital India
Friday, 09 October 2015 08:06

Last Mile Challenge Are we achieving our objective of Digital India

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Universalizing Internet service is a foundational part of the Digital India initiative. Fewer than 20 percent Indians currently have access to the Internet, most of them on a very constrained and expensive mobile telephony mode. Government of India has initiated the ambitious National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) project aimed at reaching fibre to every panchayat in India. However, there seems to be a conspicuous policy blind-spot regarding how connectivity will be carried from this NOFN backhaul to people's homes, local businesses, and local institutions like schools, hospitals and community centres. The current policy belief is that there is such immense demand for Internet connectivity that private players, whether state/ national level companies or local entrepreneurs, will quickly grasp the NOFN opportunity to build viable retail models. Facts on the ground however belie such hopes.

Rapid market-led spread of mobile telephony and of cable/satellite TV in rural India colours most views about the expected dynamics in relation to the Internet, especially once the NOFN back-haul is available in near vicinity. The reality both on the supply and the demand side is much more complex, and merits a closer look in terms of the need to promote the right policies, and technical and business models. Even in rich countries like the US it was found that in thinly populated areas private provisioning of broadband mostly fails to universalize an appropriate level of service. Whereas rapid roll-out of broadband funded by local governments without waiting for demand build up leads to huge all-round economic and social gains. There is a burgeoning community broadband movement in the US, which is being backed by the federal telecom regulator, and by federal legislation. If a rich country like the US, with an entrenched ideology of private sector provisioning wherever possible, had to take to community and local governments run last mile models, it is highly unlikely that a county like India can universalise broadband connectivity, or even make substantial progress in that direction in rural areas, with purely private provisioning based last mile models.

It is important to treat the issue of last mile connectivity as being rather distinct from the back-haul issue, being handled by the NOFN project. Last mile provisioning has very different kind of challenges, and requires a different kind of committed thinking, and policy, business and technical models. It may be more appropriate to anchor such thinking and action around the local authorities (panchayats), with possible consulting assistance from a state level agency, than have infrastructural agencies laying the NOFN concern themselves with the last mile issue as well. In the expected conditions of market failure in most rural contexts, some amount of public investment and other kinds of public involvement will almost certainly be required also in the last mile space.

The Digital India Plan & The role of the Government

Under Digital India, The Indian Government plans to spend INR 1.13 Trillion in the next 3-5 years to provide internet connection to all citizens.

The plan is likely to create over 1.17 million direct and 85 million indirect jobs.

The backbone of the entire plan is the National Broadband plan called NOFN (National Optical Fibre Network-BharatNet) which aims to connect 250,000 village councils at the cost  of INR 270 Billion (to be completed December 2016).

The Government plans to invest heavily in the NKN-National Knowledge Network connecting the higher education/reasearch institutions to a high speed digital network.

The Government's investment in the NGeP- National e- Government Plan to cover projects including automation of land records, tax, driving licenses, passports and common service centers.

To facilitate  initiatives like UID which will help drive demand and broadband and promote inclusive growth in rural areas.

It for change, society for knowledge commons, Ideasync Media combine and Digital Empowerment Foundation. organised a workshop at India International Center New Delhi on 5th September to discuss roadblocks, alternate technologies, regulatory changes to be made, making practical business models and how can the government encourage such business.

India's broadband Story so far

Low Penetration: India has approximately 191 Million narrowband subscribers and 61 Million Broadband Subscribers (against a target of 175 million NTP 2012) Fixed broadband penetration is 1.1% (world 9.9%), Mobile broadband is 4.9% (World 22.1%), Internet 12.6 (world 35.7%), smart phone 111  million subscribers against worldwide of 1.75 Billion

Concentration of usage: Top 5 states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu,  Delhi, Karnataka & Andhra Pradesh have 54.4% of the connections with Metro & category A circles accounting for 61% of the connections.

High wireless internet penetration: Wireless internet Subscribers stand at 233 Million (92.7% of all internet subscribers in the country) in a Mobile phone  dominated country.

Low Speeds: Broadband in India is described as speeds in excess of 512 Mbps. According to some studies the saverage broadband speed of 1.5 Mbps in India is the lowest in the Asia Pac region.

Service Providers: BSNL & MTNL have 74.9% of the wireless broadband and 30.5% of the overall broadband connections. The top 10 Broadband Internet subscribers share 96% of the total broadband subscriber base in India. 

Network & Technology

All three parts of a broadband  network-Core (Backbone), Backhaul & Access Networks have to be synchronised to provide a good throughput for the users. To provide a satisfactory service the network must carry. High bandwidth, be reliabile, robust, sustain & scalab & scala.

Backhaul is a constraint in urban and rural areas. Mostly dependant on copper networks of BSNL in rural areas are covered by microwave connectivity from private operators.

Network Solution for the last mile

Access Network is based on copper loops, coaxial cables and microwave. 70% is on DSL technology and 3.9% on Cable modem. In principle in the short term (1-3 years) these could be used to provide a cost effective solution for last mile.

In the medium term (3-5 years) fibre optic deployment could be done.

In the long terms FTTH (fibre to the home) can be envisaged.

Some of the new Technologies being considered are: 

MICROSOFT, has effectively shown keen interest in helping India deploying "THE WHITE-FI" technology which basically, proposes on using the 'unused television frequencies' for providing internet connectivity to each and every household across the nation.

GOOGLE, who has been working  on the 'PROJECT LOON' for the betterment of the internet connectivity all across the nation. the basic concept behind this project is to launch various highaltitude-balloons which would easily be able to provide internet connectivity over a certain local region 

FACEBOOK, looks forward to its combined initiative with RELIANCE INDIA known as the "INTERNET. ORG" initiative. Where, they are proposing to launch the "Internet.org" app for all platforms and to provide free basic services to all the app owners

Public Private Partnerships

PPP is a method of financing  but to implement projects with appropriate scope and accelerated time scales, ensuring public funds to be used in the most effective and efficient manner is the prime requirement.

The types of PPP are:

Private Design Build & Operate (DBO) Model: The Public Sector organisation receives public funding  (often a grant) to assist it in deploying a network and in offering open wholesale access. The public sector has no role in ownership or running of the network.

Public  Outsourcing model: The whole process is outsourced to a private sector organisation to build and maintain. The public sector retains the ownership and usage.

Joint venture (partnering ) model: Both the public and private sectors share the ownership. Deployment and operation of the network are undertaken by the private sector organisation.

Public DBO model: Everything is done by the public sector from financing building and maintenance. A network company is formed by the authority and offers wholesale or retail service.

International experience around Broadband networks

Australia: The Mobile broadband has been estimated to grow the country's  economy by an extra 0.28% every year since 2007.

Singapore: The Government is putting in place a nationwide Next Generation Broadband Network to increase its economic competitiveness. Almost  95% of the households are covered by the FTH (Fibre to Home) with speeds starting at 100Mbps.

China: The government is allowing private participation in the broadband market to relieve pressure on the three local players. Some estimates suggest that 22% of the entire GDP could be enabled by the broadband by 2025.

Supply-side strategies

All the players in the broadband value chain needs to focus on supply side strategies to provide high speed broadband connection to all individuals and enterprises with optimum user experience. 

Encourage public-private partnership model to attract higher private investments in infrastructure construction and business operations and efficiency.

Increase funding and institutional support by providing subsidies including tax concession, tax holidays.

Subsidised loans, Support from Universal service Obligation Fund (USOF) and other special funds and Government equity or debt funding.

Create a good environment, promoting fair competition and efficient use use of resources.

Continue to expand 3G coverage and depth and promote large scale LTE.

Facilitate application service innovation combine to deepen broadband  in various industries.

Focus on deepening broadband network of education, health, employment , emergency and other livelihood areas of application.

Enhance formation of robust network and information security systems and strictly adhere to international cyber crime laws and regulations.

Provide clear roadmap of national radio frequency spectrum allocation including the digital dividend and make available adequate amount of spectrum.

The Key policy imperatives 

The policy imperatives which have direct bearing on the challenge of last mile connectivity are:

Government's cloud policy- how will Government decide on using privately run data centre and network service to provide services

Standards for information infrastructure and data where information can be seamlessly transferred or shared intra-sector, inter-sector

Including talent from industry to participate in creating content and provisioning services

Helping local cable operators to use NOFN back haul infrastructure to reach broadband to all 120 million cable TV homes.

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