India’s Department of Telecommunication yesterday released its long awaited draft of the New Telecom Policy (Download, pdf), which mostly suggests guidelines for policy makers in the country to consider when framing government policy and rules. Before we begin, please keep in mind that this is a draft policy, and is subject to change. We hope you will give your feedback to the government via this page, and help making policy-making more broad-based and participatory. We’ll submit our views as well.

In Part 1 of this multi-part series analyzing the draft policy today, we look first at the sector that has so far received step-motherly treatment from the Indian government – Broadband. The Draft NTP-2011 seeks to allow citizens to participate in and contribute to e-governance in key sectors like health, education, banking etc. to ensure equitable and inclusive growth.

Some broadband specific highlights:

– Right To Broadband: The draft NTP-2011 proposes that policy makers should recognize telecom and broadband connectivity as a basic necessity like education and health and work towards ‘Right to Broadband’.
Our Take: great move, in our opinion, but lets hope this goes beyond lip-service. Will people be able to demand a broadband connection from service providers? For example, I live in a part of Delhi that Airtel doesn’t service.

– Definition Of Broadband: The draft NTP-2011 proposes to revise the existing broadband download speed of 256 Kbps to 512 Kbps and subsequently to 2 Mbps by 2015 and higher speeds of atleast 100 Mbps thereafter.
Our take: Readers should keep in mind that ISPs were forced to increase their speeds when the previous regime under Dayanidhi Maran changed the definition of broadband to mean 256kbps and above. A change in the definition of broadband – odd as it seems – will have an effect.

– New Connection Targets: Broadband should be affordable and reliable by 2015, and 175 million broadband connections in India by 2017, and 600 million by 2020, at a minimum of 2mbps download speeds, and high speeds of 100 Mbps available on demand.
Our Take: While 3G services and Reliance’s wireless broadband might help the government meet its target, there is little by way of policy changes that gives a push to improving broadband reach.

– Right Of Way & Fibre To Home: The policy intends to provide high speed and high quality broadband access to all village panchayats through optical fibre by the year 2014 and progressively to all villages and habitations. A big problem being faced by Internet Service Providers is getting right of way access for providing wireline connections to users, and the policy – taking into account both mobile and broadband suggests a review and simplification of “sectoral policy for Right of Way/Installation of Tower for facilitating smooth coordination between the service providers and the State Governments/ local bodies”. In addition, the policy suggests engagement with ministries such as “Surface Transport, Ministry of Urban Development, Ministry of Power, Ministry of Rural Development, Ministry of Railways, State Governments and local bodies for facilitating development of guidelines for provision of common service ducts for orderly growth of Telecom Infrastructure”. In addition, the policy wants the encouragement of “Fibre To The Home (FTTH) by independent Infrastructure Providers (IPs) with enabling guidelines and policies, favouring fast transformation of cities and towns into Always Connected society.” It suggestions the creation of an institutional framework  to co-ordinate with different government departments for laying of Optical Fibre Cable networks.

Our take: The intent is right, but this policy falls short of our expectations. A framework for co-ordination between government departments for right of way for utility services (not just FTTH) should be created, because these are bureaucratic territorial, ego, departmental-revenue issues which hold back development. There should be a single window clearance for right of way for new connections. The new policy also fails to address the bigger issue – the cost of right of way, and the main means of addressing that is by opening up the last mile of access, currently monopolised by the BSNL-MTNL combine. The policy, politically correct, states “The importance of PSUs in meeting the strategic and security needs of the country can also not be understated. This policy recognises that these PSUs will continue to play such important role”

Despite the fragmentation in the ISP business, the two public sector players dominate because of their legacy right-of-way, and most cable operators have neighborhood monopolies because of territorial distribution. Competition in the ISP business is limited, and consumers continue to suffer. So our recommendation – unbundle the last mile access in broadband. An alternative is already among the policy recommendations:

– Unlicensed Spectrum For Broadband: “To ensure the availability of sufficient microwave spectrum to meet current and future demand for wireless backhaul especially in prime bands below 12 GHz, in addition to higher spectrum bands. Unlicensed spectrum will be made available for proliferation of wireless broadband services.” and “To incorporate enabling provisions in the current regulatory framework so that existing infrastructure including cable TV networks are optimally utilised for extending high quality broadband services in rural areas also.” In addition, the policy seeks to  delicense additional frequency bands for public utility services.
Our Take: The policy recommendation of freeing up wireless spectrum for broadband services is a great move, especially since it might help ISPs address the last mile issues, and issues related to right-of-way. This might be one of the two regulatory changes – apart from opening up Internet Telephony and IPTV to ISPs and Cable TV operators, that could help spur broadband.

– Technology Neutral & Open Optical Fibre Network: “To lay special emphasis on providing reliable and affordable broadband access to rural and remote areas by appropriate combination of optical fibre, wireless and other technologies. Optical fibre network will be initially laid up to the village panchayat level by funding from the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF). Extension of optical fibre connectivity from village panchayats progressively to all villages and habitations. Access to this Optical Fibre Network will be open and technology neutral.”
Our Take: The policy doesn’t define the word ‘Open’. Does this mean that it is a government network which any telecom operator or ISP can lease for provisioning of services?

– Licensing & Convergence:  “create licensing framework to ensure flexibility in licensing to further extend converged services, and strive to create one nation-one license across services and service areas, when it comes to the access business”; “New Unified licensing regime will provide flexibility to operators to operate any or all segment of services of the total basket of services provided in the scope of licence”; and “To deliver seamless voice, data, multimedia and broadcasting services on converged networks for enhanced service delivery to provide superior experience to users, and looking to facilitate consolidation in the converged telecom service sector while ensuring sufficient competition. The government will encourage making delivery of content and services platform and device agnostic, through Fixed-Mobile Convergence.
Our Take: While convergence of licenses, and a one-nation-one-license plan is a great move (and we’ll look at one particularly significant change in licensing in a separate post), we wonder where this leaves ISPs, Cable Operators, DTH operators and IPTV service providers. Will the government force them to migrate to a unified license regime, and will the fees for that be a deterrent for further growth? We’ve written often about the need for content and services being platform agnostic – it was a key part of our recommendations to the TRAI on VAS, and about issues of fragmentation among ISPs,

Put in place a web based, real time e-governance solution to support online submission of applications for all services of DoT and issuance of licences and clearances from DoT.

– IPv6 Transition: The transition to IPv6, is planned to be completed by 2020, to allow a larger number of services to be made available via Internet Protocol.

What the policy doesn’t address

– Public Internet Access: Clearly, the policy is geared towards enabling individual/broadband access, and there is no room for encouraging the growth of public access through cybercafes and kiosks, which are typically lower costs of access, and for people who cannot afford a laptop or a desktop. It’s almost as if, like PCO vs mobiles, the government wants to move away from public access points. In that context, it also does not address public Internet access via WiFi. Clearly, this is not a part of the plan. We’re going to recommend that the government look into public access as well.

– Unbundling of the last mile, and the removal of neighborhood ISP monopolies (both explained above)

– Network Neutrality, Throttling, : It focuses only on  technological neutrality, but does not address issues related to differential access to different sites, giving undue preference to businesses willing to pay for faster Internet access to customers, and not treating all content alike. It also does not address throttling of access to content and services online, and the institution of artificial limits on plans and reduction of speeds under opaque ‘fair usage policies’, that attempt to limit consumer access to broadband dependent content and services. You may increase the minimum speed of broadband to 512kbps or 2mbps, but that is ineffective if the pipe starts trying to control what you access, and how much you access.

Now, the network neutrality issue is being addressed in case of mobile, but not in case of wireline broadband. The specific policy: “To put in place a framework to regulate the carriage charges, which are content neutral and based on the bandwidth utilisation. This will also encourage non value added services such as provision of data and information over the mobile platform.” Our recommendation to the DoT will be to made this applicable to wireline broadband as well.

– Cost of right of way & a framework for co-ordination between government departments for broadband, not just FTTH. (explained above)