In the next few years, there will be 6 billion people online, 30 billion devices and 50 billion machines online. Lockdowns linked to the pandemic have accelerated the need for more effective work-at-home and home-school solutions. These âhomeâ solutions are likely to evolve into âanywhereâ solutions, connecting almost everyone using consumer broadband, mobile games and cars connected to corporate networks, airplanes, to ships, emergency services and farms.
Before tackling the question of the future of the Internet in India, here is some background. When we talk about accessing content in our homes, we are really talking about digital data going from somewhere to your device. This data then recombines to give you a movie, song, game, or video link to your desktop. The two main channels are a broadband / fixed line channel or a mobile data channel. Broadband arrives at your home through a telecommunications or cable operator. Mobile data is through the mobile operator. According to Ookla, India ranks 132nd in the world (behind Pakistan and Bangladesh) with a download speed of 9.8 megabits per second (Mbps) for mobile data, and 71st in the world with broadband speeds. averages of 32.4 Mbps. Today, South Korea has the fastest average mobile data speed of around 88Mbps. The bottleneck for higher speeds in India has been the cost of capital (and the resulting congestion) for mobile data and the limitation of last mile copper wire for broadband speeds. Unless homes are rewired with fiber optic cables, broadband speeds will likely be limited to around 50-60 Mbps. Wired systems offer higher speeds today, but their external cabling makes them vulnerable to weather events and frequent blackouts.
Elsewhere in the world, broadband services are already at speeds close to 1000 Mbps or 1 Gigabit per second (Gps). One possible future path for broadband is called “10G”. 10G will offer residential internet speeds of 10 Gps, 10 to 50 times faster than most current services. allow a single fiber to handle signals traveling in both directions. 10G promises seamless transfers with Wi-Fi technologies so people can move freely in cities without any deterioration in quality. The future of mobile data is called 5G – the âGâ here stands for generation. With 5G, signals operate on new radio frequencies, requiring new network architecture and updating of radios and other equipment on cell phone towers. Operators can choose a low, medium or high band network, with corresponding decrease in coverage and improved speeds. India’s telecom carriers will likely choose the low-bandwidth network to start, meaning initial 5G speeds are likely to be only 20-30% faster than 4G. Beyond broadband and mobile data, an emerging path is one that uses satellites in low earth orbit (LEO). Satellites with orbit distances less than 2000 km from Earth are generally LEOs; most man-made objects in space are in LEO. Bharti Global recently partnered with the UK government to acquire a stake in OneWeb, a LEO-based communications company. OneWeb will be competing with Elon Musk’s company called Starlink, which promises ubiquitous high-speed internet using LEO. It seems rather likely that these technologies will work with each other. For example, the back-haul of the 5G network is likely to be the broadband network and local 5G networks can switch between satellite or tower transmission.
For India, the issue of adjusted gross income (AGR) contributions has paralyzed the incumbent telecom operators and put most of their balance sheets in difficulty. Reliance Jio is the only operator that doesn’t have financial issues with AGR, but they’ll also face some legacy tech issues when it comes to converting 4G to 5G. Even though the 5G rollout is expected to begin soon, it will likely take many years, and appalling mobile data speeds combined with poor quality of service are unlikely to change significantly for several years. With the exception of 2G, India has consistently compromised the depth and quality of mobile telephony for breadth and poor service.
Given this unstable operator oligopoly, for the foreseeable future India will have no choice but to encourage both broadband and 5G-based data. Unfortunately for India, the main players for both will likely be the duopoly of Reliance and Airtel. Only time will tell if the data quality of LEO satellites will be able to compete. From an access perspective, low- and middle-income India will likely only be able to afford one service and will therefore choose mobile data. Only the rich would be able to afford both broadband and mobile data services, especially as mobile prices are reset in India from their absurdly low levels. New apartment buildings would have to be pre-wired for fiber (the same way they were wired for cable and phones in earlier times). Despite the rhetoric about smart cities, the fiber network in many cities remains incomplete and is expected to be completed soon. The debate needs to be joined in the public domain so that more of us have a voice in the evolution of this vital industry.
PS: “I dream of a digital India where access to Information has no barriers,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said.
Narayan Ramachandran is President of InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand
Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our app now !!