Following complaints about poor mobile Internet download speeds in India, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has started a consultation process, for setting a minimum download speeds of 1Mbps for 3G connections and 56Kbps for 2G connections. Read the consultation paper here, and submit your views on the questions below by May 5, 2014 and counter comments by May 12, 2014 to advqos@trai.gov.in

Questions for consultation:

1: What are your views on prescribing benchmarks for minimum download speed as above? Please give your comments with justification.

2: Should the service provider be mandated to inform the minimum download speed to customers along with each tariff plan? Please give your comments with justification.

Issues raised in the consultation paper

1. Variance in Mobile Internet speeds offered by Telecom operators in India:

The minimum speed offered currently varies from 21Kbps to 97Kbps on 2G and from 399Kbps to 2.5Mbps on 3G depending on the operator and service area.

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What the TRAI wants to do: The TRAI has recommended (and put up for consultation) that telcos should offer a speed of 1Mbps for GSM 3G and CDMA EVDO plans. It has recommended a minimum speed of 512Kbps for CDMA HSD and 56Kbps for GSM 2G and CDMA 1x connections.
minimum-speed

How will the speed be measured?

The download speed in these regulations is defined as the data transmission rate that is achieved for downloading a test file from a test server to a test device. The minimum download speed should be calculated from test calls made according to the measurement set-up. Test calls are to be made to weigh the results according to the patterns of real traffic. Minimum download speed shall be the average of the lower 10% of all such test calls.

The test file that is downloaded should be twice the size of the theoretical minimum data speed offered as part of the plan. Also test server should be accessed via an IP address and not as a domain name to eliminate issues related to DNS lookup and DNS caching. These files can be issued from a centralised test server that caters to all service areas or from individual servers in all service areas.

Telcos will need to test the speed at least once a month and should have enough test probes (testing PCs) depending on the number of active users in an area.

For example, in a category A License Service Area (LSA), there has to be at least 1067 test calls for each generation of the technologies. These test calls have to be spread over the LSA covering all the geographical areas (cities/towns) in proportion of the total number of active customers and shall be further proportioned to cover all the plans working in the LSA.

Do note that the authority has not set any minimum speed for 4G connections or even addressed the issue of speed capping in 4G services.

2. Latency: Latency is the amount of time taken by a packet to reach the receiving endpoint after being transmitted from the sending point. This time period is termed the “end-to-end delay” occurring along the transmission path. Latency generally refers to network conditions, such as congestion, that may affect the overall time required for transit. High latency means that there is a significant, perceptible delay in transmission of content, and access to content will be impacted.

What the TRAI wants to do: set a minimum latency of 250ms, which means a packet should reach its destination in under quarter of a second. It has also specified that the drop rate should not exceed 5% over a period of a month.

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Other requirements put up by TRAI for mobile internet connections.

The operators will also need to maintain up-to-date logs with each of these criteria mentioned. They will need to submit these details to the authority in periodic intervals.

3. Vague tariff plans: Mobile Internet subscribers are often not aware of the minimum download speed being offered by telecom operators. The data plans are often based on the volume of data, without any information on minimum speeds, and there is no commitment of minimum download speed while offering a tariff plan.

What the TRAI wants to do: It has also suggested that operators should publish the details of all data services offered, along with their tariff, clearly indicating the cities and towns where such data services and tariff plans are applicable. The regulatory authority says that it received several complaints from consumers on the poor download speeds they were getting and notes that telcos are currently offering data plans based on volumes without mentioning the actual speed offered. As in case of wireline broadband, speeds on offer directly impact the ability to use data, thus rendering data based plans irrelevant if speeds aren’t fast enough.

TRAI data

There are 40.27 million “wireless broadband connections” in India including mobile and dongle connections at the end of 2013, according to data released by TRAI in December last year.

Bharti Airtel is the biggest operator with 9.49 million wireless broadband connections and holds a marketshare of 24%, while Reliance followed with 6.86 million connections and a marketshare of 17%. BSNL is the third biggest player with 6.55 million connections and 16% marketshare. Do note that this is the first time BSNL has disclosed the number of wireless broadband connections it has, but it’s not clear how many total data connections the company has. Idea has 5.86 million connections and 15% marketshare, while Vodafone has 5.2 million connections and 13% marketshare.

Discrepancy in data

Figures for two of the telecom operators – Idea Cellular and Reliance Communications, are different from the 3G figures reported for the end of 2013, in their earnings announcements: Idea had reported . Please note that it is not not clear what exactly the TRAI means by “broadband connections” in that report, but it is possible that it was using the same standards mentioned above for the calculation. Idea had said that it has 8.7 million 3G connections at the end of the the last quarter, while according to TRAI it has 2.86 million fewer “wireless broadband” connections. Reliance similarly, had reported 11.1 million 3G connections, but according to TRAI, the company has 4.24 million fewer connections.

Good or bad news for consumers?

Such clarity can help you really understand what plan you’re subscribing to from a telco, but it also gives them the option of artificially throttling the speed to the minimum speed specified by TRAI. For example any operator could throttle speeds of video streaming sites to 1Mbps and ask the video service to pay them more so that consumers can watch videos without buffering. On the other hand it could also ask consumers to subscribe to service specific plans for faster data transfer. Either way these regulations do not delve into the issue of net-neutrality and that’s something you as a consumer should be concerned about.

Time to increase wired broadband speeds? The TRAI had changed the definition of broadband to refer to connections with speeds over 512kbps in December last year, but may be it’s time to increase that to 2Mbps. If telcos can be forced to offer a higher minimum speed then why are wired broadband offerings set such a low bar? Shouldn’t ISPs also be forced to improve their offering?