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TalkPoint: With the worst 4G speed in the world, is India just chasing headlines on digital economy?

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India ranked last among 88 countries in terms of 4G speed, according to OpenSignal, a mobile analytics company. India was rated lower than countries such as Pakistan, Algeria, Sri Lanka and Kazakshtan.

ThePrint asks: With the worst 4G speed in the world, is India just chasing headlines on digital economy?

We are a country of linesmen who only lay the telephone lines and don’t bother if the telephone works

Osama Manzar
Founder, Digital Empowerment Foundation

India largely lives in an analogue space. Our thinking is brick and mortar.

Our announcements, manifestos and headlines may suggest that we are at the forefront of a digital revolution. But the logistics, policy and framework that is required to adopt digital tools and technology are hardly being adapted among our drivers of policy.

Digital India is not only about the quality of connectivity but also about the functionality of the entire digital movement- connectivity as infrastructure and connectivity as usability. We try to do the formality more than the real job. History shows India is fast in creating infrastructure but not in using it.

Look at BSNL itself. If we look at users and functionality, there is statistical proof that people don’t use the internet even though most of rural India is covered by it.

Our ministers tell us that BharatNet is successful as it has laid several thousand kilometres of fibre, whereas they should have been telling us how many people in our panchayats and villages are using BharatNet fibre to connect the internet. It doesn’t say how many panchayats use this internet, it only talks about how many it has reached.

We are a country of linesmen who only know how to lay the telephone lines and do not bother if the telephone works. Our primary health centres, schools and panchayats cannot be seen as a temple of learning just because the building is there; we have to make our digital buildings, digital blocks and digital infrastructure work for the people and not just for announcements that grab headlines.

India still lives in an analogue world, the digital world is interactive, it is accountable and responsive. Thus, our approach and policies should track level and quality of usage rather than number of kilometres of fibre laid.

India needs to ramp up broadband speeds urgently, to get the next 300 million online

Prasanto K Roy
Vice President, NASSCOM Internet Council
(Views are personal)

A recent study places India in the last spot out of 88 countries in 4G speed, ranking us below Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Kazakhstan. However, India does a lot better in the same report on 4G penetration (86%), at #14 of 88.

This February 2018 report (on global 4G speeds, by mobile analytics company OpenSignal) is no great surprise on either front. 4G penetration has moved up rapidly, while speeds haven’t caught up, as telcos struggle with limited spectrum, with little investment into alternatives such as Wi-Fi.

TRAI reports 363 million broadband subscribers in India as of end-2017, but it defines broadband as a 512 kbps connection, which is low by global standards. Of those 363 million, 95% are mobile, hence the relevance of 4G LTE speeds.

This is 2018: broadband should be defined as 10 Mbps, or better, not 512 kbps. There is an understandable reluctance to do this, as it will bring the ‘number of broadband users’ down.

There is rapid change in broadband access in India, though. One big disruptor has been Reliance Jio, which added a hundred million broadband data users at speeds much higher than TRAI’s benchmark. The competition from Jio forced others, notably Airtel, to give compelling 4G prepaid packages with up to 1 GB of data a day at very low prices.

Another big force was the Google and RailTel’s Railwire project to bring free Wi-Fi, at high speeds, to railway stations, 289 of them at last count with 130 more stations coming online soon.

All of this has brought video to the masses, including to station porters and tea-vendors and to millions of railway travellers, and that’s particularly important.

The first 300 million internet users in India download and use a mix of text and multimedia apps, with messaging and social media dominating (the top apps by daily download are usually WhatsApp, Facebook and Messenger).

The next 300 million will be from more diverse backgrounds and languages, likely be lower literacy, will be 100% mobile, and will use very little or no text. They will largely consume video, and multimedia.

This will put enormous strain on 4G bandwidth and licensed spectrum, which is expensive and in short supply. With a spectrum crunch, a lot will depend on ‘unlicensed spectrum’—essentially, ubiquitous WiFi hotspots. The telcos, too, need to use Wi-Fi to offload traffic, and only Jio has really been doing that in any significant way.

The access challenge, another answer we hear from the government often is Bharatnet. This is a national network of optical fiber, now over 260,000 km of it.

Bharatnet crawled along for years, but has ramped up in this this fiscal year—from just 25,000 villages (or ‘gram panchayats’) connected to nearly 103,000 today, of 125,000 planned for now. This does not yet mean that 103,000 villages are providing access to villagers: that remains a challenge, providing free or cheap Wi-Fi on top of Bharatnet.

Who will provide that Wi-Fi in villages? Not necessarily the government: ideally private entrepreneurs should be encouraged to, but policy tweaks are required to make this happen (such as the need for an ISP license to provide Wi-Fi service, a deal-breaker for a small entrepreneur).

The Digital India plan is a grand vision to get a billion Indians online, though it needed a lot of filling in of details. Up ahead, the Ministry of Electronics and IT ‘trillion dollar digital economy’ plan is working on outlining several dozen areas which need focus to make these grand plans happen.

If that plays out well, the digital economy could go up from a business-as-usual projection of a half-a-trillion to an ambitious full-trillion dollars.

And that needs high-speed broadband access for a billion Indians.

India is increasing internet penetration, but there’s not enough investment in telecom infrastructure

Talha Ashraf
Journalist, ThePrint

Digital India is the defining catch phrase of the present NDA government. But the OpenSignal report ranking the average internet speed in India as the lowest, undoes its tall claims.

The telecom industry in India is facing a financial nightmare right now. Most companies are either running in deep losses or are barely managing to stay profitable. The onslaught of fierce competition and the initial period of predatory pricing from 4G-only Reliance Jio saw Vodafone and Idea Cellular slip into losses, while Airtel saw profits shrink massively.

Little investment in telecom infrastructure and cheap prices for data plans have meant that the companies have compromised on the quality of services they offer. We may be increasing our internet penetration but the quality remains an issue with inadequate investment in the telecom infrastructure.

The government put out 4G spectrum license up for auction in 2016. But it failed to raise the amount it was expected to. Instead, about 60 per cent of the total bandwidth on sale went unsold.

Make no mistake: the blame doesn’t fall squarely just on the government’s door. The judicial activism of the Supreme Court in cancelling the 2G licenses and the subsequent rise in the base price of spectrum available for auction has contributed to this problem.

The telecom companies had borrowed heavily to invest in the telecom sector. But in the aftermath of the so-called 2G scam, the licenses bought by the telecom companies in 2008 were cancelled in 2012.

This has had three consequences. One, the companies were left stranded as they could not pay back the debt, thus contributing to the Non Performing Assets of the banks. Two, it dampened the investor sentiment. Three, the banks are not able to lend enough. The high prices of spectrum are not helping either.

Compiled by Deeksha Bhardwaj, Journalist at ThePrint.

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  1. Hahaha for first time I have seen that someone said that Pakistan is ahead of India. . . Otherwise no one like the positivity of pakistan … .

  2. lol Indian has the cheapest LTE network in the world cumulative at ₹3 /day not to forget unlimited voice and text ??

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