India Telecom Challenges and Opportunities
By Suresh Borkar
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Global telecom services continuum includes basic communications, universal and affordable mobile broadband, and user managed multimedia capabilities. This is part of the fixed-mobile-convergence with unified voice, data, and video applications on a single mobile handset.

In India, we are still in the first stage of this service continuum. The wireless voice network has grown phenomenally over the last decade. However, broadband mobile telecom, a key enabler for India’s ceaseless march towards becoming a global leader, requires critical attention. This article addresses the major challenges and opportunities relating to universal broadband access, cost effective technology path, expedient spectrum allocation, and technology leadership.

Challenges and Opportunities
It is estimated that in terms of contribution to the overall national economic growth, the increase in broadband access provides an order of magnitude increase compared to the corresponding voice tele-density increase. For a developing country like India, providing mobile broadband services is not just an option but an imperative. Current relentless focus on providing basic voice services needs to be balanced with accelerated availability of high bandwidth wireless access capabilities.

We need to focus on value added services and applications consistent with India’s needs, especially tailored to the vast rural population. Affordable broadband access is particularly important in the areas of distance education, quality health services, market access, and productivity improvements. It will help close the digital divide between the metros, tier-2 cities, and rural areas and will support inclusive growth.

For broadband, affordability is a major issue for a significant section of India’s population, both in rural and urban areas. For reaching out to the majority of the population, the government needs to look at multi-tiered broadband telecom as a critical infrastructure investment. It requires an active financial intervention by the government. Spectrum allocation needs to be looked at as a major and critical infrastructure investment instead of a short term money making proposition by the government.

In India, mobile handsets are currently bought by consumers from independent channels with pre-paid service payment agreements with the service providers. This does not allow vertical integration and longer range relationship between the customer and the service providers. This also has an impact on introduction of new technologies and does not allow the service providers to subsidize the handset cost or be able to put emphasis on a long range vision. Also, it compromises on the availability of the smart and advanced handsets, except for a select segment of the population. The government needs to make cyber cafes and kiosks universally available as part of the strategy to provide clustered and community oriented facilities and make investments for this purpose.

For localized coverage, the ubiquitous WiFi is a preferred technology. It does have issues of lack of mobility, quality of service (QoS) management, and security. The competing architectural option, pico or femto cells, provides for single mode user unit and to handover to the external micro or macro cell based cellular network. Both require a backhaul network from the customer’s premise for carrying the resulting traffic.

For Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) in its currently defined spectrum, WiMAX, in its Time Division Duplex (TDD) incarnation, is the appropriate ‘4G’ technology. It is also assumed that when 3GPP Long Term Evolution (LTE) becomes available in the marketplace, cost effective dual mode mobile handsets will be available as well.

For wide area mobile coverage, introduction of 3G mobile systems needs to be expedited. We need to avoid technology fragmentation and focus on the 3GPP family of standards, i.e., application of WCDMA and HSPA and its evolution to LTE. 3G will efficiently expand the voice capacity and will be a good solution for multi-tiered data services.

WiMAX 802.16m based mesh networks could be an attractive architectural option at a later time because of the multi-carrier capabilities, enhanced coverage, and reconfiguration advantages. WiMAX is also a strong candidate as a backhaul for India’s telecom needs, including application as a backhaul for WiFi networks, WiMAX networks, and cellular networks.

The introduction of 3G or Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) technologies has been stymied till date due to the inordinate delays in the spectrum auction. The latest indicators are that it is currently rescheduled to September 2010. This will not allow 3G or BWA services be available prior to mid 2011. The 3G and the BWA auctions need to be held expeditiously and decoupled from each other.

The spectrum allocation blocks for the licensees are very small and substantially lower than the global average. This implies limited potential for providing high bandwidth services and cost effective procurement, operations, and management. Use of lower carrier frequencies in the 700/800 MHz range should be expedited to allow cost effective cellular deployments.

The service sector is quite fragmented with over ten service providers vying for marketshare. India operators are entering the consolidation phase and several mergers and acquisitions (M&A) are expected. Consolidation is inevitable since the small number of subscribers, fragmented spectrum allocations, facilities overheads, and inefficiencies associated with disparate network management make a viable business plan impractical. Another complex issue the service providers have to deal with is number portability.

Multimedia services will require moving from the comparatively deterministic era of circuit switched networks to the statistical packet transport networks. As we migrate to a packet transport environment, the associated expertise needs to be developed in operations and management, quality of service (QoS), security, and revenue realization, e.g., content based billing, and so on. From the technology perspective, India’s academia and research organizations need to drive towards technology leadership, especially in the wireless access domain including software defined, cognitive radios, multi-access techniques, and multi-input multi-output (MIMO) antenna systems.

Concluding Remarks
The two basic tenets for India’s telecom are a) timely universal availability and affordability of wireless, mobile broadband and b) maximizing frequency and spectrum efficiency. The first one entails low cost handsets (limit number of modes and subsidized handsets), economy of scale, fast spectrum allocation, simplified rules and regulations, and minimizing technology fragmentation. Frequency or spectrum efficiency implies low frequency of operation, comparatively larger spectrum blocks, and advanced modulation and access techniques.

From the technology perspective, introduction of 3GPP WCDMA and HSPA is an economic and levelizing imperative. WiFi is an architectural imperative, primarily for localized and nomadic access, but pico or femto cell is a competing option. WiMAX is a tactical broadband decision. LTE is a technology decision for future. Incorporation of microcells with their smaller footprints is a business decision for a selected geographic coverage. 3GPP2 CDMA2000 standards are not effective technology solutions for India’s needs.

For the urban and rural masses, affordability is a pre-requisite for access to the broadband telecom services they need. The Indian environment requires a pro-active lead by the government to consider telecom as a critical infrastructure investment and make broadband access universally accessible and affordable. Telecom facilitates economic progress, fast and efficient distance learning, effective governance, and affordable and accessible health services to all people. With improved quality of life, the general public will have the spare time to indulge in the favorite national pastimes of watching TV shows, cricket, and Bollywood movies as well.

The author is Suresh Borkar, faculty, Illinois Institute of Technology
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