USOF HAS FAILED TO CONNECT INDIA AS WE STILL LAG IN MOBILE COVERAGE, BROADBAND PENETRATION: SATYA N GUPTA

Satya N Gupta is leading expert on Information, Communication and Technology (ICT), Telecom Regulation, Cyber Security and Internet Governance. Besides being India Managing Director of Bluetown, Denmark-based global IT company that provides low-cost, sustainable Wi-Fi solutions to connect people in rural areas of the world, he also wears many hats. He is Secretary General of NGN Forum India; Co-Chairman of Broadband India Forum’s Rural Digital Committee; Director of IT-ITES Sector Skill Council; Co-Chairman, Telecom Sector of European Business Group India, to name a few. 

In a freewheeling interview to ICTflash.com, Satya N Gupta talks about prevailing scenario in the Indian telecom sector — broadband, mobile penetration, regulatory environment, upcoming telecom policy, IUC, et al…

USOF (Universal Service Obligation Fund) was created to boost telecom infrastructure in unconnected and rural areas. What has it achieved in last 15 years of its exsistence?

USOF was formed to connect rural and remote areas of the country for Voice as well as Data. I frankly think USOF has achieved something on voice front but same is not true on Data front. Broadband connectivity is virtually nil in rural and remote  areas of the country. On the voice front also, there are over 50,000 villages that still have no mobile connectivity. It was the responsibility of USOF to ensure  all types of connectivity to remote, rural areas, and I feel they have miles to go.

What is your opinion on the BharatNet project?

BharatNet, the project conceived to provide high-speed broadband in rural India by providing optic fibre to 2.5-lakh villages, was started five years back. Today everyone is talking that 1 lakh gram panchayats getting connected via NOFN (National Optic Fibre Network). In reality only 13,000 gram panchayats have been  fully connected on end-to-end basis but last mile to take broadband in homes/hands of rural masses is still missing. Though they have lot of plans to achieve that and  now they are going ahead with BharatNet Phase II without the completion of Phase I, in which 1.5 lakh gram panchayats are to be connected.

For providing robust broadband network, first you have to lay down the passive fibre and then you have to connect the active equipment. Though passive fibre has been laid down up to 1-lakh gram panchayats but only 13,000 villages have active equipment which is lit and tested.

By when there would be full mobile penetration in India?

As far as voice connectivity is concerned, 50,000 villages are still left out. Government has said it will done in next couple of years; but this has been attempted for past 10 years. But I think this will be achieved in next two to three years, as they will be using Sattelite based backhaul for these.

In data or broadband penetration, it is a tough job. Government has been mentioning that by 2018 it will be done. But I think it is going to be great challenge. Also BharatNet is just taking fiber (Broadband Connectivity )to only one place in a village, and that is not the access/ delivery  of broadband.One need to create Access network like Wi-Fi hotspots by which public can get broadband access. This is a tough job and a missing link. They need to motivate private sector here through PPP route.

What is your take on reduction in Interconnect Usage Charges?

I think, it is a great thing done by TRAI. The Regulator has reduced the termination charges from 14 paisa to 6 paisa per minute. Regulator has taken the cost of different operators including old and new and innovative operators and then it would have found the actual  cost of termination of innovative operator is only 6 paisa per minute. This clearly states that operator is more efficient and using digital and efficient technologies, IP based. So by this action, the Regulator has forced everyone to become more innovative and use more efficient technologies. May be they will start using broadband as a carrier over which voice will be provided as an application, in a very efficient way.

It is a progressive decision and with that broadband access will  also sell more. By 2020, the IUC (MTC) will be zero and, it is a good decision for the development of the sector. Broadband usage will increase. Total revenue will not decrease even IUC is zero. Whatever happens, total revenue will always increase.  Here TRAI has done a fine balancing act.

But everyone is talking about transparency that TRAI should have adopted while deciding on IUC. What is your view?

No, I don’t think so. There is no lack of  for transparency here, as TRAI follows a well laid out and time tested open consultative  process, involving all stakeholders. This decision will benefit for 1 billion customers. The Regulator has done this for the overall societal benefit. Welfare of consumers, operators and the government has to be taken in mind and then the balancing act is performed.

In fact, the Government exchequer will suffer some minor hit due to reduction in AGR, everyone is talking about Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, Idea Cellular and Jio Infocomm, but no one is talking about the financial impact the government may face from it.

Since you are associated with Broadband India Forum, what rural digital initiatives BIF has taken so far?

Broadband India Forum is facilitating the ecosystem of broadband in India. We are having various startups as our members, including Bluetown which I represent, who have same kind of passion or vision for rural development. There is much more to do for rural India. We all together, the members of Broadband India Forum, are pooling our strengths. Some are bringing equipment, some content and some investments and some business cases. Like Bluetown has brought the concept of  “Hot-spot as a Managed service” to bridge the missing link of last mile in rural India.

Various initiatives at different levels have been taken up by BIF. Two new projects have been planned and proposals prepared for the funding of pilot project. One has been sent to USOF and other to Ministry of Electronics and Information and Technology (Meity) for approval. Various brainstorming workshops have been organised to bring awareness about the rural Broadband  market, understanding  needs for  local content in rural areas and providing applications.

The Telecom Ministry is working on New Telecom Policy. What are your expectations?

I would like to see VNO (Virtual Network Operator) policy and licencing getting more simplified, specially for rural and remote areas, like just a simple registration electronically. More spectrum should be unlicensed for Wi-Fi in NTP 2018. These initiatives will boost broadband and help data revolution, thus helping in faster growth.


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