Deepak K Mishra, Lead Economist World Bank and Co-director, World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends, examines the issues with India´s net connectivity.
India ranks low with respect to its Internet infrastructure. What are the issues?
It is not unusual among developing countries, to find that Internet usage lags behind mobile take-up. India suffers in the sense that, as a huge country with significant usage of local languages, it relies primarily on terrestrial networks for delivery of service, which tend to be more expensive to provide than submarine networks. Furthermore, India´s allocation of spectrum to mobile broadband is limited compared to rival countries. This greatly increases costs to operators, forcing them to build higher density of antennae, and reducing service quality. This problem is exacerbated by poor planning in spectrum auctions. Although India is an enthusiastic user of auctions as a market mechanism for allocating spectrum, poor design, especially over reserve prices, has sometimes left big blocks of spectrum unsold, or particular cities unserved.
Speed and quality of connection are two things that define the user experience. What is the crux of this problem?
There are lots of factors that determine the speed and quality of bandwidth. Tt is difficult to generalise. The World Development Report (WDR) 2016 sets out a policy framework that defines a value chain (first mile, middle mile, last mile and invisible mile) and sets out recommendations for each segment. While there are improvements India can make in each segment, spectrum allocation issues are where India can make most progress. Infrastructure sharing, ´dig smart´ policies, mutualisation and consolidation of licenses across markets can make the sector competitive.
When a user opts for a certain Internet package, the actual speed is always less. Why?
This is a common issue for ISPs and arises where a common resource — such as a copper cable or a portion of the spectrum is shared between multiple users. This means that service quality goes down when there is a high level of ´contention´ for bandwidth, for instance at busy times of the day, or if there are certain users that are hogging bandwidth (e.g., playing video games or downloading large files). The ITU sets good practice guidelines that set standards for the level of contention on networks, i.e., how many users should be sharing the same bandwidth. But, in their eagerness to attract new users, or because of shortages of upstream connectivity or bandwidth, ISPs may sometimes flout these guidelines and add too many users for a limited amount of bandwidth, hence reducing quality.
Where are the bottlenecks? Are they at the last-mile, cross-country, or the international gateways?
Again the WDR16 policy framework — first mile, middle mile, last mile and invisible mile — provides a useful way of analysing where bottlenecks can occur in the network, and each level is vulnerable. As noted above, India-¦s Achilles heel is lack of spectrum, and an imperfect allocation of the spectrum that exists, which reduces service quality.
What are the data-transfer technologies or systems that India uses that are lagging technologies elsewhere?
Major transmission technologies the world over include:
Is the Digital India programme on track to deliver the Internet to every gram panchayat and village?
The challenge is particularly large for geographical and demographic reasons. With the right policies, near universal coverage is certainly possible. It would require greater competition in the telecom sector, more PPPs and effective regulations including greater availability of spectrum to the operators.