“The single most important reform” to improve penetration of fixed broadband in India “is the strengthening of the Right of Way Rules 2016 issued by [the Department of Telecommunications],” Reliance Jio said in a filing to TRAI on the regulator’s wide-ranging consultation on improving broadband access in India. State and local governments’ ignorance of the importance of optical fibre connectivity have “thwarted” approvals to lay fibre and improve networks, Jio said. The telco added that the Right of Way rules, that encourage speedy approvals for telecom infrastructure to be laid on public property, need to have statutory backing to have “teeth”. In detailed recommendations on right of way, Jio recommended low fees for using fibre ducts, and recommended a dig-once policy, a policy which reduces the frequency of construction work that needs to be done to lay civic utilities to a single instance.

In addition, Jio said that building codes should be changed to make sure ISPs have free access to residents, and that fixed line phone numbers should also be portable: “We request the Authority to take measures to usher in integrated numbering scheme, Number portability Fixed-Fixed, Fixed-Mobile and Fixed-intelligent Networks and deliver the true benefits of convergence.”

Jio also said that satellite constellations for providing broadband should be considered, even though such services, like SpaceX’s Starlink, are at a “nascent” stage. The telco did not elaborate on its views in this regard, but it’s worth noting that SpaceX did so in detail in a response to the same consultation.

  • Idle spectrum: Jio said that it was “inexplicable to say the least” that the government had not held a spectrum auction in the last four years even as demand for data increased on mobile networks. (Vi and Airtel have practically ruled out buying spectrum for 5G at the current reserve prices.) Jio said that this should not happen again, and a long-term spectrum auction schedule should be set.
  • Attack on 2G: Jio lashed out at its competitors in the paper, accusing “some legacy service providers” of keeping 2G phone users “trapped” in the second generation of mobile networks out of fear that they would not be able to keep up with “better competition”, and that these telcos were benefiting from the interconnect usage charges that such low-ARPU 2G subscribers generated from incoming calls from other networks. Universal Service Obligation funds should not require 2G networks to be spent, Jio argued, saying that doing so would create “2G islands” with obsolete technology. (Jio had complained about one such tender in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands). “Cross subsidizing” 2G technologies should be stopped, the telco essentially argued.
  • Localisation to reduce dependence on undersea cables? Jio said that approvals for establishing undersea cables need to be simplified. But beyond that, the company made a curious submission, that “early introduction of data privacy and data localization provisions” would reduce dependence on undersea cables and move more traffic in-country. This is true, but the Personal Data Protection Bill’s data localization or mirroring requirements focus on personal data, whereas the bulk of traffic on any network is bound to be content like videos, much of which is not personal. It seems, therefore, that Jio is arguing for some kind of state push to require localization of enough data to make a difference in international data transit, which would have greater ramifications for the internet than simply requiring personal data to be stored in India. This is different from encouraging caching, which Jio has not done.
  • Spectrum charges and taxes: Jio argued that the tax and AGR burden from running telecom services are too high, and that they need to be lowered. TRAI should “incentivize investments by reducing the license fee and spectrum usage charge obligations”, the telco said. It suggested that license fees should be brought down from 8% of adjusted gross revenue to 3%, and that spectrum usage charge should be less than 1%, and should only be charged to recover administrative expenses.

In addition, it said that ceilings for voice call carriage should be lowered. Pointing to BSNL charging 35 paise per minute for voice calls “unmindful of the fact that the cost of carriage has become practically zero with adoption of IP technology by all operators,” the telco said that keeping the ceiling where it was risked “TSPs passing off access revenue as national long distance revenue to avoid paying spectrum usage charges”, and that this was leading to revenue leakage for the government too.

Redefining broadband

Jio argued that redefining broadband from 512Kbps was necessary as markets had evolved to provide high speed internet without regulatory intervention. However, Jio said, if TRAI wanted to put in subjective measures like “always-on, high-speed, etc.”, it would not oppose it, as such models have been implemented elsewhere “without much adverse impact”. While Jio said that it was “feasible” to differentiate between different fixed line broadband connections based on speed, it was not possible to do so for wireless networks, where the demand and number of users is always a factor that makes it impossible to guarantee speeds.

The company also argued that a national speed test program was not necessary as commercial solutions already existed, like Ookla’s Speed Test portal and TRAI’s own MySpeed app.

  • Fixed broadband slow due to old tech: Copper cables that were still being used in fixed line networks are slowing down speeds for consumers, Jio argued. The company argued that with fibre rollout intensifying, speeds would improve very soon for customers. JioFiber is FTTH-based, so it has never had to deal with the issues it is citing.
  • Contention ratios should not be prescribed: Jio argued that it served no purpose to mandate a contention ratio retroactively, saying that encouraging ISPs to switch to newer fibre technology would resolve speed issues.
  • Mobile data is bound to be slow: Jio argued that wireless broadband was bound to be be slow (“it would not be prudent to expect the wireless broadband speeds to keep pace with rest of the world”) because of a relatively smaller slice of spectrum being available to telcos with many more subscribers than countries like the US and China.

Read Jio’s submission here.

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