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Defence to get pan-India broadband network
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India's defence forces will soon have a pan-India wireless broadband network. This was decided in a meeting on July 20 between the telecom and defence ministries, officials with direct knowledge of the development told ET.

The telecom ministry has accepted the armed forces demand that one slot of pan-India wireless broadband airwaves be reserved for it. In the recently concluded auctions, Reliance Industries, which bought out Infotel, was the only player that bagged pan-India wireless broadband airwaves. The telecom department has also said that the armed forces can take a call whether to use WiMAX or the upcoming LTE technology for their pan-India wireless broadband network.

The July 20 meet was attended by five representatives from the armed forces, including Lt General P Mohapatra, SO-in-C, and Lt Col VK Jain, officiating director — both from army headquarters, and the team of wireless advisers from the telecom department led by Dr Ashok Chandra.

As against the telecom department’s (DoT) plan to award 10 MHz of wireless broadband frequencies, the defence has sought that this be doubled in line with what is being handed out to the winners of the recently concluded auctions. The telecom department is in the process of awarding 20 MHz of BWA spectrum to the two winners in each circle. DoT sources said that the armed forces demand for 10 MHz of additional broadband spectrum will be considered during the next round of meeting between both parties.

In another related development, during the same meet, the telecom ministry had also sought that the armed forces vacate up to 65 MHz of 2G spectrum so that the government can meet its obligations by providing the minimum amount of airwaves to all existing telcos as specified in their licences. This comes as the future expansion prospects of new entrants and other mid-sized mobile operators are on a sticky wicket as a DoT study has for the first time confirmed that India has virtually exhausted its stock of 2G airwaves, the frequencies on which all mobile services are delivered today.

The DoT requires as much as 85 MHz of 2G airwaves to ensure that all “existing” operators get the minimum amount of airwaves promised in their licence. ET has learnt that the defence services have told the DoT that they were open to releasing about 55 MHz of 2G airwaves. This will happen in a phased manner and will be linked to the completion of the alternate network that the DoT is building for the defence forces. The armed forces have also told the DoT that they will take a call on vacating an additional 10 MHz of 2G spectrum (so that the total amount they release is equal to 65 MHz ) after studying the matter internally.

Officially, the allotment of 2G airwaves or ‘spectrum’ has been on hold for the past 18 months on the grounds that the communication ministry is yet to finalise a new methodology for awarding these airwaves. But telcos who having been waiting for months, are unlikely to get any 2G spectrum in most circles even after the new allocation methodology is finalised, unless the armed forces bail out the DoT.

The armed forces support is therefore crucial since the DoT study, a copy of which is with ET, confirms there are no 2G airwaves available with it in the 900 MHz band, while only tiny bits are available in the 1,800 MHz. (The 900 MHz and 1,800 MHz are the two frequency bands in which 2G airwaves are present).

According to the DoT, second generation spectrum is currently available with it in only 10 of India’s 22 circles and in these cases, too, little in most regions — for instance, Delhi has 3.6 units of 2G airwaves left while Mumbai has 2.2 MHz. Additionally, about 50% of the country’s 14 telcos have only the basic start-up 2G spectrum in many key circles, leading to a possibility of many operators being unable to expand their networks to cater to their growing customer bases.

For instance, in the Mumbai circle, leading operators such as Idea Cellular, Reliance Communications (GSM), Tata DoCoMo, Aircel, Uninor all have only 4.4 MHz of airwaves, the minimum required to launch mobile services. While each of these mobile firms are awaiting an additional of minimum 1.8 units of 2G spectrum for their next phase of operations, the DoT study indicates that a mere 2.2 units are available in total. Similarly, in the case of say Maharashtra, where no 2G frequencies are available. Only eight telcos have startup airwaves, most of whom are also awaiting additional frequencies to improve the quality of services for their growing subscriber numbers.
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