Broad­band in In­dia

Where is it and what do con­sumers say?

Consumer Voice - - Contents - He­mant Upad­hyay

We are in 2015 and this is the year when In­dia is sup­posed to over­take the United States of Amer­ica to be­come the sec­ond-largest user of In­ter­net in the world. If es­ti­mates are to be be­lieved, we may do that soon. How­ever, the avail­able data con­tra­dicts the es­ti­mates and the coun­try is as yet at the bot­tom of the pyra­mid as far as speed, reach and aware­ness of In­ter­net is con­cerned. This re­port is a re­al­ity check on not just the ex­ist­ing gaps be­tween vi­sion and achieve­ments, but also cus­tomers’ per­cep­tions of crit­i­cal di­men­sions so far as ser­vice providers are con­cerned.

The In­ter­net story in In­dia started on 15 Au­gust 1995, when Videsh San­char Nigam Limited (VSNL) launched the Gate­way In­ter­net Ac­cess Ser­vice (GIAS). Sub­se­quently, six nodes were es­tab­lished at Mumbai, Delhi, Chen­nai, Kolkata, Ben­galuru and Pune. Each GIAS node was con­nected to the In­ter­net and had a band­width of ap­prox­i­mately 10 Mbps. To get con­nected to the In­ter­net, one had to have a VSNL con­nec­tion.

Re­al­iz­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of In­ter­net ser­vices, the gov­ern­ment al­lowed pri­vate ISPs to set up the re­quired in­fra­struc­ture in the coun­try within a cou­ple of years. It also es­tab­lished Tele­com Reg­u­la­tory Author­ity of In­dia (TRAI) in 1997 to reg­u­late ser­vices, in­clud­ing fix­a­tion/re­vi­sion of tar­iffs. TRAI’s mission was to cre­ate and nur­ture con­di­tions for growth of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in the coun­try and en­sure that In­dia played a lead­ing role in the global in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy domain.

Vi­sion Broad­band: A Re­al­ity Check

Na­tional Tele­com Pol­icy 2012 has the vi­sion of ‘broad­band on de­mand’, wherein it ex­pects tele­com in­fra­struc­ture to en­able all cit­i­zens and busi­nesses, both in ru­ral and ur­ban ar­eas, to par­tic­i­pate in the In­ter­net and Web econ­omy, thereby en­sur­ing eq­ui­table and in­clu­sive devel­op­ment across the na­tion. It aims to pro­vide af­ford­able and re­li­able broad­band on de­mand by 2015 and to achieve 175 mil­lion broad­band con­nec­tions by the year 2017 and 600 mil­lion by 2020, at a min­i­mum 2 Mbps down­load speed and higher speeds of at least 100 Mbps on de­mand. It also aims at pro­vid­ing high­speed and high-qual­ity broad­band ac­cess to all vil­lage pan­chay­ats through a com­bi­na­tion of tech­nolo­gies by the year 2014, and pro­gres­sively to all vil­lages and habi­ta­tions by 2020.

How­ever, as per the con­sul­ta­tion pa­per pub­lished by TRAI in Septem­ber 2014, against a tar­get of 175 mil­lion broad­band con­nec­tions by 2017, only 60.87 mil­lion have been achieved. The coun­try is not even half­way near meet­ing the tar­get for a ser­vice that is con­sid­ered al­most a ba­sic ne­ces­sity in many de­vel­oped coun­tries.

At­trac­tion, Avail­abil­ity, Af­ford­abil­ity

There are many fac­tors that have pre­vented the wide­spread adop­tion of broad­band in In­dia. One of the pri­mary is­sues has been fail­ure on the part of ser­vice providers to make the medium suf­fi­ciently at­trac­tive amongst the masses. A large part of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion is not yet aware of the sig­nif­i­cance of the In­ter­net and how it may change their lives for the bet­ter.

An­other ma­jor is­sue has been the lack of avail­abil­ity. Had the medium been avail­able ev­ery­where, the aware­ness and at­trac­tive­ness part would not have been a ma­jor chal­lenge. Af­ford­abil­ity has been an­other point. In re­cent years, tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments have re­duced the cost of per­sonal com­put­ers and cheap smartphone­s are help­ing in spread­ing the reach of the In­ter­net; even then, the scope for re­duc­ing hard­ware costs is still there. An­other af­ford­abil­ity is­sue comes from the sub­scrip­tion tar­iffs – th­ese too can be re­duced to at­tract mass us­age of In­ter­net in the coun­try.

Be­yond Ur­ban: The Way For­ward

Each ser­vice provider in the coun­try has their largest foot­prints in the ur­ban re­gions and min­i­mal in the semi-ur­ban, while the ru­ral – with the max­i­mum num­ber of house­holds in the county – re­mains al­most ne­glected. While they do not see much busi­ness po­ten­tial in the ru­ral belts (not much lo­cal con­tent and ser­vices to at­tract the pop­u­la­tion there, they say), a few ex­perts be­lieve it is the limited avail­abil­ity and aware­ness that makes for a com­pelling rea­son for con­tent providers to fo­cus on lo­cal­ized prod­ucts.

The other chal­lenge for broad­band pen­e­tra­tion, es­pe­cially in ru­ral ar­eas, is that nearly 70 per cent of the mar­ket in In­dia is con­trolled by state-owned BSNL and MTNL. Pri­vate play­ers have there­fore found it tough to pen­e­trate the mar­ket.

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