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Broadcasting sector can release spectrum for broadband
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In her first address to the joint session of the 15th Lok Sabha in June last year, President Pratibha Patil had set a target for the government to connect every village panchayat to a broadband network in three years. Under the scheme, broadband connections are to be installed in the common service centres (e-kiosks) so as to make available to citizens in rural areas all kinds of e-governance services. It was expected that the government will take immediate follow-up action to implement the scheme envisaged in the President’s speech.

After a lapse of almost ten months, the recent government decision to lay five lakh kilometres of optical fibre to reach every gram panchayat and the provision of Rs 18,000 crore to implement the scheme, although belated, is a wise step. According to reports, to implement the scheme, an infrastructure company will be carved out of BSNL and the new venture will be supported financially by the Universal Services Obligation Fund.

What is missing from the plan is the private sector participation to deploy broadband wireless technologies in the last mile. Deployments of wireless technologies are inescapable, as extending the optical fibre network to villages will be too costly. The optimal solution will be a mix of optical fibre up to the last network node and the access network (last mile) on broadband wireless. Optical fibre is an optimal technology only in the backbone, as it provides terabit capacities not required for applications running on individual computers.

For deployment of broadband wireless technologies, which are likely to provide least-cost options in rural and remote areas, availability of adequate quantum of frequency spectrum is an essential prerequisite. Unless urgent action is taken to get spectrum released for broadband services, broadband cannot be extended beyond a few urban centres. The gravity of the problem and the scarcity of this precious resource can be gauged by the fact that due to the non-availability of spectrum, India has delayed the launch of 3G broadband services by at least five years. Even now, the last word on this subject has not been spoken by the government. The 3G auction is dependant on the ministry of defence releasing a small amount of spectrum (15 to 25MHz), which may pose a serious challenge to network designers in engineering a quality of service enabled 3G network. Against the global average of 2x18MHz per operator, the government proposes to allocate only 2x5MHz per operator in India.

The department of telecommunications (DoT) has put pressure on the defence ministry to release spectrum for broadband services since the last five years. However, instead of pressurising the defence forces, it will be much better for DoT to look elsewhere. One of the areas is the broadcasting sector. It can release adequate amount of frequency spectrum for broadband if television broadcasting—which currently use radio frequency spectrum employing inefficient analog transmission techniques—convert its free-to-air services to digital. Since digital transmission is six times more spectrally efficient than analog, such conversion will release a large amount of spectrum. All developed countries, including the US, UK, Italy and Australia, started the planning process to covert their TV services from analog to digital about ten years ago.

The subsequent release of a large amount of spectrum, called the ‘digital dividend’, will provide the country with adequate frequency spectrum to introduce broadband digital services in a big way, particularly in rural areas. The importance of the digital dividend can be gauged by the fact that Australia has created a separate department for broadband, communications and digital economy to reap it.

Television broadcasters around the world are moving to digital-only platforms. The US completed its transition to digital-only terrestrial broadcasting on June 2009. The UK commenced its region-by-region switchover to digital-only terrestrial broadcasting in November 2007 and is scheduled to complete the transition by 2012. The need of the hour for India is to draw up a time-bound plan to draw the digital dividend for broadband services.

Although the Trai, in its consultation on overall spectrum management and review of licence terms & conditions, initiated in October 2009, has assessed the overall requirement and availability of various spectrum bands, it has only a small section devoted to the issue of digital dividend. It does not contain an in-depth examination of the issues involved in the conversion of analog TV transmission to digital within a stipulated timeframe and the quantum of digital dividend spectrum to be made available. A separate consultation on digital dividend on the lines of what has been done in Australia and UK is urgently required.

To take our growth rate to double digits, the scheme to take broadband to 2,50,000 panchayats needs to be completed in the next 18 months. Only broadband wireless technologies and digital microwave in backhaul can speed up the implementation of the scheme, as wireline technologies are time consuming and labour-intensive. Unless the nation benefits from the digital dividend, the full potential of these technologies will not be available to network planners.

Some studies have emphasised that that ubiquitous broadband can generate direct employment opportunities for 1.8 million, indirect employment for 59 million and yield benefits equivalent to $90 billion. These benefits can be achieved by extending the broadband coverage to at least 50% of the rural population by 2010 and 100% by 2020. Therefore, the country must get the digital dividend without any further delay to give the national broadband economy a real push.

Source: The Financial Express

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