India’s Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) has strongly recommended amending the law and making Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) truly effective. It observes that ‘once TRAI forwards its recommendations, the government is at liberty to accept, reject or keep it pending, without citing any tangible reason.’ The JPC found that many TRAI recommendations were ignored by the government for a long time and in some cases the government’s decision was not even communicated to the regulator. In the opinion of the committee, an independent regulator cannot be effective if its recommendations are to be left entirely at the mercy of the government. Therefore, the committee are of the unequivocal view that government should decisively respond to the recommendations of TRAI within a (time frame) as it is currently mandatory for TRAI to respond to a reference by the government within 60 days.
Last week The Hindu, in its editorial, has urged for a secondary market in spectrum trading. Having minimum download speeds of 2 Mbps, as opposed to the current standards of 256 Kbps, is contingent upon operators having access to adequate spectrum. Mobile companies in the US or Japan typically have 30-40 MHz of spectrum, compared with the 5 MHz or so available with Indian operators. With an active secondary market, operators can plan their capital investments through an optimal mix of airwaves between what they may want to ‘own’ and what could be ‘bought’ out. Such assessment can, moreover, be made on a continuous basis, unlike now where capacity creation is a function of official decisions on spectrum auctions.
All submarine cables connecting the Far East with Europe and Africa transit at India. It has made 12 submarine cables (six owned by consortiums and six privately-owned) hopping into 10 cable landing stations (CLS) at the Indian seashore. Voice and data traffic of 27 international long distance operators (ILDO) are processed through the 10 CLS. Four (Tata, Airtel, Reliance and BSNL) out of the 27 ILD providers own respective CLS in India. The ILDOs who don’t own CLS told TRAI that Tata Communication and Bharti Airtel together enjoy a 93% market share.
Thomas K Thomas has been covering Indian telecom issues for a long time. His reflections on the lessons that need to be learned from Indian spectrum policy since 1994 are worth a read: Back in 1994, when telecom licences were given out for the first time, a flawed auction design allowed non-serious players to bid astronomical sums and then default on payments. In 2002, operators were given additional spectrum on subscriber-linked criteria without any upfront fee. This was the first time anywhere in the world spectrum was given based on number of subscribers. In 2008, the then telecom minister A.
There is so much wrong with the IDI. It gives a higher ICT development rank to Cuba (106) and Zimbabwe (115) well ahead of India (119). I ridiculed the predecessor of the IDI in the past, but they keep churning it out unfazed and people keep paying attention, which then causes me to pay attention too. There was even a fuss in the Bangladesh media about how that esteemed country managed to get itself excluded from IDI coverage in 2012. Few months back I promised to analyze the S Asian IDI rankings in more detail, so here goes.
Asia is said to the last redoubt of belief in the Westphalian state. The Internet is fundamentally incompatible with the notion of a national state (legislature, executive and judiciary) having untrammeled authority over all that went on within its boundaries. It is therefore understandable that government officials have trouble dealing with Internet policy. But as stated by this observer of the Indian process, it appears that Indian officials have overcome these handicaps, thanks to vibrant stakeholder engagement: But a subsequent close engagement on their part with the government seems to have borne fruit. The positions that were put forward in Dubai by the Government of India in the end were far more nuanced, effectively taking into account many of the concerns that civil society and industry had put on the table.
Many countries left the final decision on the ITRs to officials. In some case like Kenya, the officials applied their minds. In too many developing countries, it was a knee-jerk response based on maximizing national control and/or loyalty to the ITU. India is different. “ITU should only focus on telecom sector and not get into information and communication technology as they have tried to do through the Dubai convention last week,” said Subho Ray President of Internet and Mobile Association of India.
In the morning there was a report that the great Asian democracy, India, had not signed the ITRs. Now it looks like it did. Looks like poetic babus played a double game. Kenya’s brave lone stand is extraordinary and can be explained by what it has to lose if the Internet ceases to be seamless, as I explained in an oped in the Business Daily in October. But there are surprises: Qatar and Egypt?
I have been studying how to make Internet affordable and resilient across the developing Asia. Excessive reliance on submarine cable is the bottleneck. My study shows how to overcome it by deploying fiber across the continent, exploiting the transcontinental highways. But the control-freak governments, attending WCIT 2012 conference at Dubai, have deepened the crises of Internet. James Cowie of Renesys Corporation has categorized the countries being vulnerable to different levels of Internet shutdown risk (Click on the map).
Just a sample: The National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), which represents the $100-billion IT and BPO industry, has strong views against the Internet governance model of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Numbers and Names (ICANN), but favours self-regulation. Its president Som Mittal says: “NASSCOM does not favour oversight by an existing U.N. organisation like ITU. Internet and infrastructure have to be in the hands of expert organisations with proven experience.
Technocrats (and people like us who emphasize the rational) would prefer a rational, integrated solution. But we rarely get greenfield opportunities. In almost all cases vested interests dominate. So the reform that gets done is imperfect and messy. This is the message P Chidambaram, Minister of Finance seems to be giving to NYT.
LIRNEasia exploits the wisdom of the crowd, or at least of the informed crowd. Its launch, back in 2004, was at an Expert Forum that brought in knowledgeable regulators, policy makers, stakeholders and researchers to discuss seeds of research ideas and give ideas for new research. Keeping with that tradition, we brought in a number of experts to discuss some initial cuts on papers being developed in the context of the Ford Foundation funded project, “Facilitating and enriching policy discourse on increasing broadband access by the poor in India”. The meeting was attended by senior officials of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Chairman Dr Rahul Khullar and Advisor Mr Sudhir Gupta. The topics covered included regional specificities of broadband development, contributions that could be made to an improved investment environment by licensing policies, the opportunities presented by the “digital dividend” repurposing of frequencies for broadband development and metrics to assess efficacy of broadband policies.
When I was asked by LMD about barriers to growth in the ICT sector, I mentioned parents who are not open to their children becoming entrepreneurs. Here is a supportive story from India. In Bangalore, a city at the forefront of many social changes in India, the young are leading a vibrant start-up culture that has taken root over the past few years, much to the dismay of a generation of parents. According to these elders, respectfully called “Aunty” and “Uncle” in India by the younger generation, the natural progression after college is to work for a short time, to get an M.B.
Having voted on behalf of the government at ITU forums, I can imagine the discomfiture of Indian officials when their decisions to go along with proposals to bring the Internet under the authority of the ITU are questioned by powerful domestic stakeholders. Opposing the government’s decision of having a global body to regulate Internet content, India Inc as well civil society groups today said that India should withdraw its consent to such a proposal. Besides, they argued that the government had taken a unilateral decision on Internet governance, without discussing it with the civil society members, industry or academicians. India had favoured an international proposal to regulate Internet content through a United Nations Committee on Internet Related Policies (CIRP) comprising 50 bureaucrats from the UN Member countries. India concurred with the CIRP on October 26, 2011 by making a statement at the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Establishing causal relationships is tough in social science, a field defined by open systems and knowledgeable agents. It is extremely difficult with regard to policy actions and outcomes. In 1998-99 when I was the public face of telecom reform in Sri Lanka, I used to get lots of invitations to speak at business events. In these talks I had to maintain a delicate balance, between giving the then government and its predecessor the right amount of credit for the incredible outcomes that were becoming visible. The government in power had been in place for four years and had partially privatized the incumbent operator and given its management to a Japanese investor, among other things.