Making India’s broadband internet access faster

India classifies internet connections as ‘broadband’ if they offer a download speed of 512kbps or more. Many stakeholders say this bar is too low.

The pandemic brought drastic changes in the way people work when homes transformed into their new offices. High-speed internet, not rails or roads, became the new transport to work.

With this new dependence on video conferences, cloud services and social media, demand for broadband internet access in India grew 5% from 681 million to 716 million lines between end February and end August 2020.

But what qualifies as ‘broadband’? And is the upload speed as important as the download?

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) floated a consultation paper on this and other matters in August 2020. ‘Roadmap to Promote Broadband Connectivity and Enhanced Broadband Speed’ attracted 43 responses before the consultation closed in mid-November.

There is no universally adopted definition of what makes a connection broadband. TRAI’s Quality of Service of Broadband Service (Second Amendment) Regulations, 2014, set a minimum download speed of 512Kbps to from the service provider to an individual subscriber, but said nothing about upload speed.

That’s a low bar compared to standards elsewhere. Months after India’s regulation came into force, the US Federal Communications Commission said broadband connections should offer upload speeds of 3Mbps—and download speeds of 25Mbps. And as far back as 2003 the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations body bringing together the world’s telecommunications regulators, said broadband should be faster than 1.5 or 2.0Mbps.

Bottom of the class

Happily, actual broadband speeds delivered by network operators are somewhat higher—an average of 38Mps for fixed connections and 12Mbps for mobile, according to TRAI’s paper—but global averages are more than twice that, and India’s average broadband speeds are lower than those of every other BRICS country.

As TRAI noted in its consultation paper, “It becomes obvious that broadband speed in India is a cause of concern.”

The paper elicited strong support for a more demanding definition of broadband, although there were some differences of opinion between fixed-line and mobile interests. (Fixed-line services delivered fewer than 3% of India’s broadband connections in August.)

In its response to the consultation, the Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI), said broadband needs to be defined considering factors like download and upload speed, independent of the technology used. If mobile providers’ services can’t consistently meet the definition of broadband, they should be called mobile internet, it said.

The Broadband India Forum (BIF) recommended a modest boost to the definition of broadband: a minimum 2Mbps in both directions, regardless of the medium or technology used, should qualify as basic broadband. But it also suggested creating new categories: fast broadband would offer a minimum 15Mbps in each direction, ultrafast 30Mbps or more.

Nasscom, too, set higher expectations for broadband 4Mbps for download and 1Mbps for download. It said minimum speed criteria should also be set for mobile broadband—or if that is not possible due to technology constraints then the term should be reserved for service delivered over 3G or newer technologies, as in German and Brazil.

Focus on availability and affordability

However, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) had a different take. It saw no need to define different categories of broadband, instead saying the first focus should be on availability and affordability of services.

One ISP, Atria Convergence Technologies (ACT), called for broadband to start at 2Mbps for mobile connections and at 5Mbps for fixed.” Like BIF it also wanted categories for fast and ultrafast broadband but starting at 10Mbps and 100Mbps respectively.

Telecommunication company BSNL too suggested raising the thresholds, to 2Mbps (download) and 1Mbps upload, supporting the creation of higher-speed labels for fixed-line services but not for broadband.

One of the few organisations happy with the current broadband speed limit was Tata Communications, which recommended maintaining the existing definition.

In its response, Bharti Airtel advised waiting until broadband infrastructure is more widely available before changing definitions—and then, in a couple of years, raising the bar for fixed-line broadband to 8Mbps or better, and for mobile broadband requiring that connections use 4G technology or newer.

Vodafone Idea suggested definitions based on speed have lost their relevance, as the market is already offering speeds several times higher. Introducing multiple speed categories, it said, will only be justified when broadband has become ubiquitous.

With around 700 million (mostly mobile) broadband connections for a population of 1.4 billion, India still has some way to go.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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