Interview with JS Deepak, secretary, department of telecommunications
Taru Bhatia and Pratap Vikram Singh | March 6, 2017
How are you planning to expand the network of rural broadband, since the NOFN project is moving slow?
About 300 km of optical fibre was laid from 2012 to 2014. Now, we have reached 1,09,000 km. Earlier, the speed was 40 km a day. Today it is 400 km a day. There is a tenfold jump. Expenditure, which is one way of measuring the progress, was Rs 3,000 crore last year. This year it has been Rs 7,500 crore. We will be able to lit 1,00,000 gram panchayats with fibre by the middle of this year. They would have fibre with high-speed broadband facility. And for last mile, we are planning Wi-Fi.
Read: Internet, unto the last
There will be a number of models to provide Wi-Fi hotspots, but mostly the private sector and village-level entrepreneurs (VLEs) will do that on a viability-based model, as approved by the cabinet.
Will all the VLEs be put to use for putting Wi-Fi hotspots in villages?
There will be a bidding system. VLEs would be one mode and hopefully a preferred mode, because they are there at the last mile.
The industry participation has been low as the business in rural areas is not much, which has further delayed the implementation of NOFN. So what exactly is the business model like?
There was no strategy earlier for the implementation of NOFN. It was under the fibre command only. We have divided the medium in four parts. There will be underground fibre, fibre on the polls, wireless and satellite. Depending upon the region and demography, we will have one of these. Then the execution capacity has been a problem. Now it will be done by the states, by the private sector as well as the CSCs on engineering procurement construction (EPC) contract basis. So we are expecting to move faster. And the last mile was not thought of before, so now we are doing it through Wi-Fi.
READ: “For connectivity, fibre can’t be the last mile”
White space is an under-utilised technology to roll out low-cost broadband internet in India. However, the department of telecom seems to be apprehensive about it. Why is that so?
I am not anti-white space. We have talked about the spectrum. There is a trade-off. We auctioned that spectrum. We are talking about 700 megahertz spectrum. If we delicense spectrum better than that, no one will buy it. So it is a trade-off. And whether it is to be done through licensed spectrum for which we sell or by free spectrum that is the issue, on which we need to take a call. We will take a call in March at the telecom commission. We have sold spectrum for Rs 3.5 lakh crore in last six years. So the government deciding to sacrifice that revenue is not a small decision.
Do you think the telecom players are paying heavily to the government, which in turn is affecting them to invest in rural areas?
I do not agree with this. If you look at the history of our regime, they bid for upfront payments and default. These people paid and then defaulted. And then the revenue sharing package was given to them, which was around 10-12 percent. We have reduced it to eight percent out of which five is the USOF [universal service obligation fund] levy for the investment in industry infrastructure. We are not overcharging them. It is liberalised. Second, the spectrum usage charge (SUC) is going down over a period of time. It used to be 10 percent; now it is just three percent. They got free spectrum for years, now they are making fair payment for public assets, which hold interests of citizens like you and me. So where is the overcharging?
And we are not expecting them to go to the rural market unless there is a paying capacity. We know they won’t go. Where there is business, they will go. Where there is no business, they won’t go, even if I make zero charges.
The telecom regulator says that telecom players are not putting much focus on the wired broadband infrastructure. So how is the government planning to persuade the industry to do so?
We don’t have the landline or satellite network. We only have a wireless network. So there is a need to make investment in this. It will help if they invest in other networks but there is no scale. Telecom is a scale business. Profits come at the very end. So wireless network is profitable, it is viable and the incremental value is more in it.
There is a pattern. Like the voice revolution, the broadband revolution is coming. For the first hundred million users, India took 18 years. For the second hundred million, it took three years. The third hundred million took only 18 months. So, it is accelerating.
If broadband is the next big thing, then what are the roadblocks?
The issue is digital literacy. How many people can use a computer in rural areas? Digital literacy, as per the CSC survey, is 80 percent in rural households. But where is the content in the rural language? Demand has to come from the industry. The telecom industry has grown but the content industry has not. That is the problem.
The national telecom policy 2012 says that every household will have affordable access to high-speed internet by 2020. Are we moving towards the objective of making internet a fundamental right of people?
The telecom policy 2012, I think, is a document with a vague end. I think time would come when all of us will have broadband. We are looking into a specific project and scheme to make it happen.
What is the realistic picture then? When will the broadband reach to every citizen?
I will not put a date to it. It is not possible because these things accelerate. By September 2018, we will have broadband in every village in the country, with Wi-Fi for the last mile.
(JS Deepak is now set to take charge as India’s permanent representative to the World Trade Organisation)
(The interview appears in the March 1-16, 2017 issue)
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