10 ways the new telecom minister can improve communications in India

Here are 10 ways the new telecom minister, Manoj Sinha can keep the momentum going after taking over from the previous telecom minister.

The previous telecom minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad has been doing a lot for communications including figuring spectrum pricing, opening up infrastructure sharing, introducing virtual network operators and keeping the telecom service providers on their toes. Here are 10 ways the new telecom minister, Manoj Sinha can keep the momentum going.

Retain new mobile broadband users
Mobile broadband users tend to churn a lot because most of the new users using pre-paid mobile services are either trying out internet for the first time, or are migrating from another service. TRAI can go ahead with its plan to extend validity of prepaid data packs from 90 days to 365 days to counter this, and can take more steps to encourage new broadband users. A framework for allowing free data services without going against the principles of net neutrality is a possible approach.


Commuters in a Mumbai local use their smartphones. Credit: Reuters

IT industry body Nasscom has suggested that Trai give full autonomy to apps and service providers to decide on how they offer free data. Savetheinternet.in has suggested a number of mobile plans to Trai that can encourage new users, without the need for service providers to offer zero rated schemes. These include offering a slower data rate for free, and Freemium subscriptions, where a limited amount of data is available for free initially, the consumer has to pay for additional usage.

Improvement in backhaul networks
Backhaul networks funnel the traffic from mobile and wireless broadband users to the national backbone. Improvements in fibre optic and microwave backhaul networks will go a long way in ensuring a better internet service for everyone. There is a need for regulations to allow for the growth of backhaul networks at a municipal level, at the city planning stage, and when it comes to construction of buildings. Highways, roads, drains and rail services can include ducts for telecommunication use, as well as spaces for towers in the planning phase. Currently, only access to fire safety, water and electricity services are mandated, not access to the internet.

An Indian labourer digs a road during sweltring heat when temperatures soar 44 degrees centrigrade (111.2 degrees fahrenheit) in New Delhi on May 29. A heatwave sweeping northern India has killed 70 people in this summer so far - RTXFCTK

An Indian labourer digs a road. Credit: Reuters

Access to backhaul networks is time consuming and requires various permissions from local bodies, which can be a more streamlined process. Development projects also frequently disrupt the fibre cables laid for backhaul networks. Frequent digging and bad planning can lead to more cuts and re-attachments than recommended per length of cable. Better planning of such projects can go a long way in improving both wireless and wired broadband connectivity.

Use Cable Service providers
Digitising cable service providers is acting as a catalyst in increasing broadband penetration. Telecom service providers have tied up with local cable service providers to use their understanding of the local urban and rural features to set up telecom infrastructure. Local cable service providers can be used to provide last mile connectivity, that too with indigenous made equipment. However, cable service providers are regulated mostly by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), and not by the Department of Telecom (DoT). This is a mismatch of interest and a lost opportunity as the MIB has little interest in broadband penetration. Trai is in pre-consultation stage when it comes to introducing broadband over cable services, and of infrastructure sharing of telecom service providers and internet service providers with cable operators.

Using Digital Terrestrial Transmission (DTT) in rural areas
Digital terrestrial transmission is a great way to open up large rural areas to the internet. Live video can be streamed to multiple screens, data can be cast to many devices from a single location, and there is the ability to transmit to moving devices. The public broadcaster can open up ultra high frequency bands to be used by commercial service providers. Shifting regular television content in rural areas from analog terrestrial transmitters to digital terrestrial transmitters will open up spectrum for other uses. This is due to the efficiency of DTT.

Pratima Mandal, a 19 year old Indian village girl, uses a WLL(Wireless Local Loop) mobile phone to talk to her family members from Madhabpur village, while other village women wait for their turn, 100km south (62miles) from the eastern Indian city of Calcutta, capital of West Bengal state, on August 3, 2003. Non-governmental organizations are distributing mobile phones to a select number of villages in the remote areas of the state to improve connectivity. Those who get the mobile phone will charge other villagers for making and receiving calls. [At the end of June 2003 there were 15.15 million mobile phone users in India, 106 percent more than at the end of the same month last year.] - RTXM3L7

A Indian villager uses a wireless local loop for mobile telephony. Image: Reuters.

Encouraging Virtual Network Operators
The government has recently framed guidelines for VNOs based on recommendations by Trai. These will have the ability to resell bandwidth, with or without value addition, which will increase the competition and reduce the prices for the end user. VNOs can provide services from more than one operator, and consolidate these services for the end user. As this is a new type of service, the DoT can steps to ensure that VNOs can operate free of any sudden steps by the administration that are populist measures taken to "protect consumer interest". Potentially, mobile phone manufacturers can also float VNOs to offer telecom services directly to consumers.

Convergence of telephonic and broadband networks
Data and voice connections can be regulated under a single license to prevent duplication of networks. This will allow for telcos to offer their services as over the top applications, ending the impasse and competition with such services. Trai's consultation paper on VOIP services addresses the issues of interconnection, interconnection charges, allocation of phone numbers and access to emergency services. Such a convergence will also give a boost to the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry, who currently have to duplicate their efforts to create infrastructure for voice and data services.

Indian employees work at a call center in the southern Indian city of Bangalore June 26, 2003. India's call centers provide cheap English-speaking workers and high-speed telecoms to provide customer service helplines for companies around the world. They're a boon for India's army of job-hunting youth, but there is a murkier side to the industry. Picture taken June 26, 2003. TO ACCOMPANY FEATURE TECH-INDIA-WORKERS REUTERS/Jagadeesh NV JSG/TW - RTREY9

Indian employees work at a call center in the southern Indian city of
Bangalore. Credit: Reuters/Jagadeesh NV

Regulate mobile towers in urban areas
One of the biggest reasons for call drops and quality of service issues is the haphazard treatment given to mobile towers by local bodies. Local and central bodies have to be contacted separately for licenses. There are no standard rates for urban projects such as building complexes, malls or stadiums to pay telecom service providers, which can be regulated. Radiation fears lead to random takedown of towers as and when the local populations get agitated.

A Reliance celltower installed in a public park is pictured in Mumbai March 26, 2015. Residents of a Mumbai suburb are taking on Reliance Industries, one of the country's biggest conglomerates, in a rare grassroots protest against this 25-metre (82-foot) telecom mast that marks a new stumbling block in India's troubled push to get millions more online. Picture taken March 26. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui - RTR4VU7M

A cell tower in a public park in Mumbai. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

These measures include sealing of towers, physical dismantling or cutting of electricity supply. Once a tower is taken down it can take up to two years for it to be replaced. These problems can be taken care with the implementation of a single national policy for telecom infrastructure in urban areas, along with regulations that allow better use of this infrastructure. One way in which the existing infrastructure can be used more economically is to allow for infrastructure sharing between telecom companies.

Infrastructure sharing for ISPs
Earlier this year, the DoT permitted active infrastructure sharing between telecom operators. The same location cannot have too many cell towers operational, which are at least not aesthetic additions to the environment, even if a banana tree is more radioactive. An artificial barrier is created as only a few operators can be active in some areas, and this can change with infrastructure sharing. Infrastructure sharing ensures optimum use of available resources. In urban areas, infrastructure sharing prevents telecom service providers from entering into agreements with developers, and then install the infrastructure that is most suitable to only one operator.

Allowing ISPs to share infrastructure would bring down the cost of setting up services to new and remote locations, as well as reduce the cost for the end user. This is applicable in areas with low population where services by multiple broadband providers are not sustainable.

Spectrum availability
Spectrum allocated to defense has opened up, but the frequent changes in what spectrum is made available to which operator puts a wrench in the machinations of setting up the network infrastructure by service providers. The DoT can go a long way by providing a roadmap to service providers of which spectrum will be made available when, ahead of making these spectrum bands available for use. Making the spectrum available for license before the auction actually happens can ensure a quick roll out. The government can incentivise the effective use of spectrum for the service providers. The DoT can reduce the burden on the telecom industry by allowing the service providers to pay for the spectrum with a pay-as-you-earn payment model.

Encouraging service providers
Setting up infrastructure is costly, and there are many ways that the government can reduce the financial burden on service providers. The amount of red tape needed at the national, state and local level can be streamlined, instead of multiple levies and duties being charged. There can be a single point for clearances and licenses, which require multiple submissions for various agencies. There can be subsidies for importing of equipment needed for improving broadband infrastructure. The government can take measures to encourage funding for telecom projects, and alternative sources of such funding.

Another possible way to encourage broadband growth is to subsidize the electricity supplied to service providers. Another measure DoT can take is to make sure Trai is clear about the terminology when introducing new regulations. Trai recently introduced a term known as Closed Electronics Communications Network (CECN), which seems to be some kind of intranet on which zero rated schemes are allowed, however, it has not responded to industry bodies seeking clarification on the regulation. All these measures can bring down tariffs for the end user.

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