My second presentation at the SATRC policy workshop moved into contentious territory. I was preceded by Principal Advisor to TRAI, Mr Sudheer Gupta, who presented the TRAI recommendation that the new category they describe as “application services” be subject to a form of authorization at the cost of INR 15,000 and transaction costs. Sri Lanka’s official representative challenged the need for licensing, which made me happy. But this is an area where no one has all the answers and it is good that SATRC has got the discussion going. I did not cover the last section of the slides because of lack of time.
The South Asian Telecom Regulators’ Council (SATRC) is holding a policy workshop in Nagarkot, a scenic location about 90 minutes from Kathmandu. Sustainable broadband is one of their key focus areas. I was asked to do the lead presentation. My presentation was organized around the metaphor of chains. A chain is as strong as the weakest link.
For most of its existence the South Asian Telecom Regulators’ Council (SATRC) has been a talk shop, not particularly noted as being on the leading edge of anything. Therefore I was very pleased to see that it is being cited as the pioneer in implementing the APT’s 700 MHz band plan that will provide enough low-frequency spectrum for quick rollout of wireless broadband, an absolute necessity for a region that has very little wires connecting homes (and still not able to justify the costs of FTTH given what people are willing to pay for broadband). The only down note is about Sri Lanka (which prides itself as the first to introduce new technology in the region) keeping out of the South Asian consensus along with Iran. This is perhaps because the government handed out the 700 band frequencies to a large number of private TV broadcasters for nothing (for Treasury) over the past few years and is thus constrained. According to the Ericsson Mobility Report (November 2012), LTE networks are expected to cover 60% of the population in Asia Pacific by 2017, up from an estimated 1.
It’s been several years since we publicized the Zain innovation that brought down roaming prices in East Africa. No one picked up the inelegant workaround. Until now, when Airtel has sort of started the process. Indians traveling to Sri Lanka or Bangladesh will have one thing less to worry about. Airtel, which has operations in these two countries as well, has announced a new tariff for its customers in India, under which they will be able to make local calls in the country at Rs 1, while calling back home will cost them Rs 10.
LIRNEasia CEO, Rohan Samarajiva, was recently invited to the 12th South Asian Telecommunications Regulators’ Council Meeting in Tehran, Iran, where he made presentations on intra-SAARC roaming charges (mentioned in this post) and broadband quality of service in the Asian region. LIRNEasia has been involved in broadband quality of service testing in the Asian region for a while now. The most recent tests using the AT-tester, a diagnostic tool developed by IIT-Madras and LIRNEasia, were conducted in October 2010. Rohan argued that delivered speeds with the local domain were above those advertised, the opposite was true in the international domain. Furthermore, broadband services in Asia offer lower value for money than in North America, likely largely in part due to high international backhaul costs.
We were dragged into work on roaming by the SATRC. Our focus was on intra-SAARC call charges, but the then Chairman of SATRC, Mr Nripendra Mishra of TRAI wanted to act on both. So we started. We were more interested in intra-SAARC call charges because it affects more people, and more at the BOP. But looking at roaming prices, one cannot but be outraged.
Some people celebrate 25 years of anything: dead marriages, inert regional groupings, just occupying space. We don’t. SAARC must be assessed by its fruits. On internal connectivity it fails. Here’s the evidence, carried in op-ed articles in Bangladesh’s Daily Star, Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror and also in a PTI dispatch: It is always easier to do things within one’s own country than outside, or at least it should be.
An organization called RIS (Research and Information System for Developing Countries) invited me to speak at a workshop celebrating 25 years of SAARC. I see nothing to celebrate, but came nevertheless because there is value in cross-fertilization and because it was time to apply some more pressure on changing the absurd international calling prices and roaming charges in the region. It was like being the new kid in the class. These people had been meeting each other for the past 25 years or more and knew each other well. Many warm and fuzzy things were said about what a wonderful thing regional cooperation was.
We were not optimistic about the telecom regulators actually doing something about lowering intra-SAARC phone prices more than one year after the SAARC heads of state said it should be done. The regulators show their independence when it comes to matters such as this. But the prices came down for LK-IN calls without any regulatory intervention. We continue to live in hope. South Asian telecommunications regulators have decided to ask phone companies in the region to reduce international call charges, an official said.
I wish the question mark was not necessary, but the record so far does not allow me exclude it. We started this process in the weeks before the 2008 SAARC Summit. When the issue was mentioned in the SAARC Chair’s speech and included in the Declaration, we were, naturally, pleased. I recall telling a journalist that at most it would take a few months to get this implemented. We raised the issue with the then Chair of the South Asian Telecom Regulator’s Council, Mr Nripendra Misra of India.
The South Asian Telecom Regulators Council (SATRC) met in New Delhi 12-14 October 2008 and discussed among other things, the implementation of the SAARC Declaration commitment on reducing intra-SAARC voice telephony call charges. This is the policy memo we sent to all the SAARC regulatory agencies immediately after the SAARC Summit: Options for lowering intra-SAARC international voice telephony tariffs The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was created in 1985 to foster regional and economic cooperation within South Asia. It has made several attempts to improve connectivity within the region by actions including the lowering of telecommunication prices among member countries, but has met with little success so far. In its most recent effort to reduce international call tariffs within the region, the Colombo Declaration of the 15th SAARC Summit (August 2008) points out in paragraph 6 that “an effective and economical regional tele-communication regime is an essential factor of connectivity, encouraging the growth of people-centric partnerships.” The Declaration stresses “the need for the Member States to endeavour to move towards a uniformly applicable low tariff, for international direct dial calls within the region.