The Covid-19 crisis has brought unprecedented challenges for all of us. As we navigate this situation, the role played by broadband Internet has significantly increased. It has suddenly become the centre of our lives for work and communication, and a means to avail all the essentials services.
With the impact of Covid-19, WFH, video conferencing, online clearance of files in the Government, etc., have become the new norms in the industry. This has resulted in the increase in demand and upward movement of data consumption by the existing users.
The Digital Users Group of India organized a webinar, where they examined readiness at the supply side and the aspirations at the demand side.
The participants were N. Sivasailam, former Special Secretary, (Logistics), Ministry of Commerce, SK Gupta, Secretary, TRAI, P Balaji, Chief Regulatory and Corporate Affairs Officer, Vodafone Idea, NK Mohapatra, CEO, ESSCI, and Manoj Barara, Director, Pre-Sales, Nokia India. Anil Jain, former CGM, BSNL, was the moderator.
Resilient broadband network
Anil Jain said that thanks to coronavirus, the world is shifting to online. There is heavy load on the social media, WFH, broadband usage, etc. There is 25-40% increase in broadband. We used to call data as the new petrol. As online is increasing, everyone now needs broadband. Broadband has reached 50% in India, which means, half the population still remains unconnected. The ITU and the UNESCO have set a target of connecting 75% of the world’s population by 2025.
Manoj Barara, Director, Pre-Sales, Nokia India, said there has been a massive impact of Covid-19 on the telecom network. This is going to be the new normal. Networks will be shaping the future of our country. Homes have become new offices, generating content, creation studios, etc. The upload and the download requirements are increasing. This is despite the curb on the streaming grade by the OTT players.
Wireless broadband networks have managed to efficiently maintain networks than the mobile networks. We now require bandwidth of 10Mbps or 20Mbps. The resilience of our broadband networks has been commendable. The Broadband Health Index of a city or country would be resilient. India should focus on fibre-based networks for the times to come. 5G is coming and will help with the latency, high intensity traffic, etc.
NK Mohapatra, CEO, Electronics Sector Skill Council of India (ESSC), added that India has been on broadband for a long time. Earlier, broadband was not considered as a necessity, like electricity. We can connect with the rest of the world through broadband. Now, everybody needs connectivity. Today, in rural areas, we also need broadband. It will have many flavours and changes. We need to meet the challenge of having every possible technology that delivers broadband. Everything is now done remotely. The industry will definitely deliver.
P Balaji, Chief Regulatory and Corporate Affairs Officer, Vodafone Idea, noted that we have had low teledensity for long. Today, we have over 100% teledensity in the urban areas. There has been a lot of work done by the telecom operators, equipment providers, regulators, etc. The innovation in this sector is second to none. The whole ecosystem has adapted digital. There are solutions for MSMEs, cloud-based networks, etc. During the Covid-19 crisis, there were some extremely difficult situations on the ground. The industry is very resilient.
We have planned for network resilience and BCP in the long term. With the co-operation between the operators and the regulators, we can meet any challenge that comes. Anil Jain agreed, adding that all telcos have increased the capacity, and maintained their networks.
SK Gupta, Secretary, TRAI said that due to country-wide lockdown on 25th of March, the utilization of the bandwidth shifted from the offices to the homes. We were in distress, not knowing what will happen. There was huge pressure. Today, the normal down percentage of a BTS is 1%. Our telecom industry is run by very competent people and it has been very resilient.
There have been online solutions for long, but we lacked the confidence to go on that path. This also happened at TRAI. This new situation forced us to test the water. We found that it was much easier to work from home. The new normal will also reduce congestion on roads, reduce carbon footprint, etc. We need to see whether the educational institutes are ready. Only 2% network is via wireline, and the rest is on wireless networks.
There is a change in demand. We are going to do some very important work for the office. Hence, we will need highly efficient broadband networks. We have cable TV network, so that broadband can be provided via that stream. We need to improve the Wi-Fi networks. Telecom is a critical service.
He alluded to AIIMS Rishikesh, who developed a product that needs to be put on the body of a patient. It is monitored by doctors remotely. They can send a team and have the patient treated, should the need arise. Now, this is dependant of a very stable broadband connectivity.
He said: “We are there for all the verticals. Telecom is very critical for everything. It needs to be given priority for the right of way. Problems faced by the industry will be done away with. We need to bring more funds to the sector. There are short- and long-term requirements. There should be a vital, proper infrastructure for people to work. We will be able to augment. Right of way is an issue. We need to have all states to agree to the right of way. There should also be the reach of optical fibre to each home.
Addressing spectrum, right of way
N. Sivasailam, former Special Secretary, (Logistics), Ministry of Commerce, added that challenges present opportunities. He said: “We are here because of the resilience of the broadband. We need to enhance broadband to such an extent that we, perhaps, would never need to put our mics on mute for a conference. We are talking about massive communications. Handling of big data requires technology. We have also been able to maintain social cohesion as there have not been any riots. Assistance is available, and there is critical communication. Relief can also go to the rural areas.”
He added that there is a great deal of rural focus because of Covid-19. We are going to see a change in digital commerce, or digital business. The brick and mortar shops will get digitalized. There will be lot of things on documentation. An authenticated document can come to you only when you are interlocked. There must be an opportunity for people to take this on.
We also have issues related to institutions that are being created. We need to find an institutional solution. With the revival of BSNL and MTNL, they would be perfect to create the new infrastructure. The right of way should also be supported in an institutional manner.
There is also a lack of demand for spectrum. It is true that the telcos are stressed. Failure to address spectrum issues will mean India could be behind in 5G. The number of apps in 5G will be huge. Large amount of spectrum and broadband will be available. Active sharing of spectrum is a great step forward. The E and V bands are under discussions with the government. We have not implemented it in 5 years. We need to address this issue. TRAI has the ability to get things done.
Anil Jain informed the house that the DUG has formed groups for further discussions. These are around 5G, broadband QoS, manufacturing for Atmanirbhar Bharat, capacity building, skill development, MSME for innovation, blockchain, AI, AR/VR, etc.
Call for fibre
In the panel discussion, Jain said that India has 685 million broadband connections today. Of this, 439 million are in urban areas and 247 million are in rural areas. We will try and bridge the gap. We also found that only 33% of women have access to broadband. We have to take further steps. To take broadband to the rural areas, there are areas such as right of way, status of electricity, difficult terrain, and low ARPU, that need to be addressed.
P Balaji said that Vodafone Idea had signed up with the ITU and GSMA. We also activated a solution called Sakhi. Using a pseudo number, the women phone numbers can be charged. We are trying to oversee education as well. Rural connectivity is a milestone that was achieved recently. Innovations around voice-based communications are also happening. There is work being done by BBNL. We are currently down to 40,000 villages.
N. Sivasailam added that the quantum of requirement will be much larger. There was no talk about CSCs (common service centers) earlier. Today, the CSCs are a major thing. We also need to supply rural entrepreneurship. We further need to build on the MNREGA. Through that route, each village panchayat can be given money. MNREGA has 40% component for material. Fibre can be laid and the material component can be addressed. Everything else can be taken care of by village panchayats.
Anil Jain added that today, we are looking at a self-reliant India. However, we are paying $2.7 billion per year for telecom equipment. We should look at manufacturing telecom equipment on India.
Manoj Barara said that Nokia is doing a huge investment in India. We are the first to file a new radio for 5G in India. We will be able to serve the needs of India, as well as of a neighbor. We will also be able to control the network. We are managing over half a million base stations all over the world, from India. We are manufacturing, installing and maintaining telecom equipment.
NK Mohapatra stressed on the need to have telecom companies with products localized here, in India. Service is not an area of concern. The real challenge is developing the R&D manpower.
N. Sivasailam added that the E and V bands issue was raised. We also had some international presentations. The health-related aspects were discussed. There are no health implications. We would have been one of the first to develop apps for the E and V bands. TRAI recommended that E (71-76 Ghz and 81-86 Ghz) and V (57-64 Ghz) bands should be opened up in the country for the acceleration of broadband penetration. SK Gupta agreed, saying that there is no problem with these bands, and no radiation. We are the culprits, and not the towers.
On a question related to the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), P. Balaji said that NDCP is a fantastic document. The faster implementation of NDCP will allow us to roll out networks better. On a separate note, Google Alphabet has been eyeing a stake in Vodafone Idea to take on Facebook, which has a stake in Reliance Jio. This is said to be in an early stage.
Gokul Tandan, Executive Chairman, Cloud Connect, delivered the vote of thanks. We are on the cusp of a new age, new solution, etc. There will be massively scalable networks in the future.