Feature Story

Could Mobile Broadband Solve India's Connectivity Problems?

by Jason Deign

Rolling out fixed-line broadband connections is a challenge in a vast, rural country such as India. So maybe it is time for a different approach.

One of the ironies about India’s technology infrastructure is that it looks a lot better the further away you go. While Indian service providers routinely handle major IT outsourcing tasks for American and European companies, getting even a standard Internet connection can still be a challenge for many people in the country.

And now some analysts think standard Internet connections might not be the answer for India anyway.

Mobile wireless broadband is more practical,” claims Roslyn Layton, who is vice president of the mobile analyst firm Strand Consult and a fellow at the Center for Communication, Media and Information Technologies at Aalborg University in Denmark.

#81: Could Mobile Broadband Solve India's Connectivity Problems by The Network Podcast

“I am not convinced India should pursue a fixed-line broadband strategy,” she adds. “Mobile broadband has the advantage of low capital and maintenance requirements, mobility, shared capacity, and usability.”

What is clear is that India’s administration, so far, has struggled to meet broadband rollout pledges.

Mahesh Khera, president of the Broadband India Forum, says: “India is still far away from realizing its stated broadband targets of 200 million by 2017 and 600 million by 2020.”

In fact, as of 2012 the International Telecommunication Union estimated that less than 13 percent of the Indian population had Internet access.

“All we can say is that India is slowly increasing the number of individuals using the Internet,” Layton says. “Given that India has a large population, this is a large number. But this is still a low percentage for what we consider a modern developed nation.”

There have been some advances in recent years. In 2012, for example, the government set up Bharat Broadband Network Limited, a special purpose vehicle designed to bring connectivity to each Gram Panchayat, or local government body, in India.

However, Khera believes the government officials entrusted with the US$6 billion task of wiring up India have suffered from a lack of experience in managing time-bound infrastructure projects and selling or leasing bandwidth.

He points out that 53 Gram Panchayats have had 100 Mbps bandwidth connections since 2012, but none of this capacity has been leased out yet. The upcoming change in leadership might help, though.

Election frontrunner Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party, is said to be more pro-business then his predecessor. Khera thinks a Modi-led administration might be able to overcome the roadblocks that have held back broadband growth so far.

Then, he says: “India would be on track.”

Even so, Layton maintains it might be easier for India to follow Africa’s lead and rely on mobile for its broadband requirements.

In Africa, she notes, mobile broadband penetration has increased 50-fold in the last six years, while the number of fixed lines has “hardly budged.”

This proves that the economics for mobile broadband are “highly favorable compared to other networks,” she says. “All things being equal, mobile broadband provides the most cost-effective way to produce a megabit of traffic.”

Of course, mobile broadband has its own challenges, such as a finite amount of spectrum, which in India is currently spread across too many operators to allow any single company to gain economies of scale.

But compared to government, private-sector mobile players may have more of an incentive to roll out broadband quickly because without it they cannot recoup their investment costs.

And nobody is asking for the kind of broadband speeds seen in the rest of the world. Indian consumers are already in many cases making do with low-bandwidth applications suitable for wireless connections.

As a result, Layton says: “India could make huge gains by increasing basic broadband, of just 2 Mbps, to more people.”

Khera adds: “The nation needs a basic minimum 2 Mbps broadband as free for the 67 percent Economically Weaker Section, to help them come up to the required standard in education and healthcare.”

There is a lot at stake. India has been awaiting a broadband revolution for some time now. If government, mobile operators, or both can finally rise to the challenge then, says Khera: “The nation is in for a golden era of fixed and mobile broadband in the next 10 years.”



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