To get to their consumers, broadband providers have to deal with a very literal gatekeeper: your apartment’s resident welfare association. Broadband providers can’t just start installing their equipment and lay out cables without approval from the RWA. And that approval usually comes at a cost. Many broadband players are forced to cough up high amounts of rent to lay the cabling and infrastructure that they need to reach residents.

Many apartment complexes and buildings don’t have basic telecom infrastructure, like network cable ports in the walls of individual apartments. Indeed, this is not a legal requirement. The result is that the first broadband provider that comes to an apartment complex builds out a disproportionate amount of this infrastructure. Not to mention that all this equally applies to wireless carriers like Jio and Idea who need in-building access to boost signal sometimes.

This status quo can significantly skew the internet access marketplace in buildings.

Regulatory intervention

A building resident’s access to any Internet provider is now dictated by which ISPs are allowed inside their building. And every ISP has to deal with apartment unions before reaching consumers. This pits ISPs not only against building administrators, but also against each other — many apartment unions sign exclusive commercial agreements with ISPs, locking their residents into a single provider, even if others are available in the neighbourhood.

Last year, telecom regulator TRAI put out a consultation paper on this issue, and recommended (pdf) that all Internet providers should be required to share the network infrastructure that they lay out in buildings with other ISPs as well.

They also recommended that exclusive deals that lock out other ISPs should be treated as a violation of the terms of telcos’ license. This recommendation applied to all buildings, not just apartment complexes — indeed, this issue affects all buildings, not just apartments.

The Bureau of Indian Standards, which is in the process of amending India’s National Building Code, has also received a recommendation by TRAI to incorporate non-discriminatory telecom infrastructure as an essential part of a building’s infrastructure. At least three broadband providers need to be in a building, TRAI recommended.

No end in sight

Curiously, Airtel, which is among the multiple ISPs that have exclusive deals with apartment unions, argued against regulation:

“For existing private residential and commercial buildings, regulatory intervention is not required and commercial arrangements should be left to market forces and mutual agreements,” the ISP said in its submission (pdf). Spectranet similarly argued against regulation (pdf) but said that a neutral networking hub which serves all of a building’s residents should be a part of India’s building code, so that switching ISPs does not require any change in wiring or fresh installations.

Reliance Communications, on the other hand, argued (pdf) that there was an “urgent need” for legal intervention to prevent discriminatory practices by apartment unions, and that sharing in-building infrastructure should be mandatory. Both Spectranet and Reliance argued that some electromagnetic spectrum needs to be delicensed so that it can be used for in-building broadband coverage, like WiFi.

Last week, the Telecom Commission extended the time that wireless carriers need to pay for spectrum licensing from ten years to 16 years. As an addendum, they also approved TRAI’s recommendation to make sure that a building isn’t given a ‘completion certificate’ until it has built a cabling duct to accommodate ISPs’ cables. This will now have to make its way through the Ministry of Urban Development before becoming a law. But another recommendation, which says that a building’s networking infrastructure needs to be shared without discrimination among ISPs, “was sent back” to TRAI.