TRAI’s final roadmap for connectivity and broadband access is a mixed bag #AccessToInternet

tl;dr

After multiple rounds of consultation, the TRAI released its final recommendations on the Roadmap to promote broadband connectivity and enhanced broadband speed. Some of the recommendations we had made during the consultations were reflected in the final report, albeit with certain modifications.

Background

Last year in August, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a Consultation Paper on Roadmap to Promote Broadband Connectivity and Enhanced Broadband Speed, addressing issues such as the definition of ‘Broadband’ and promoting broadband connectivity through innovative technologies. On October 19th, 2020, we submitted our comments on the consultation paper. Our submissions were centred around 2 main issues:

  1. Updating the current definition of broadband: The existing definition of ‘broadband’ is inadequate and may need revision to account for download and upload speeds. This would help overcome any attempts by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to reduce access to the internet by restricting and throttling upload speeds and help bring about a fuller advancement of user rights. Thus, we had suggested that ‘broadband’ be defined as: Broadband is a data connection that is able to support interactive services including Internet access and has the capability of providing download and upload speeds which fall into one of the four categories mentioned herein to an individual subscriber from the point of presence (POP) of the service provider intending to provide Broadband service. The four categories of broadband speed are:
    1. Normal - 512 Kbp/s to 2 Mbp/s download speed , 256 Kbp/s to 1 Mbp/s upload speed;
    2. Good - 2 Mbp/s to 20 Mbp/s download speed , 1 Mbp/s to 10 Mbp/s upload speed
    3. Fast - 20 Mbp/s to 50 Mbp/s download speed , 10 Mbp/s to 25 Mbp/s upload speed
    4. Superfast - 50 Mbp/s download speed and above, 25 Mbp/s upload speed and above
  2. Developing digital infrastructure: Alongside policy level changes, there is a need to develop digital infrastructure in a manner in which constant updation and revolutionsing is possible. Thus, we had submitted the ‘Dig Smart' model of public-private partnerships for creating broadband infrastructure, wherein the government would install the conduits wherever there was a need for public works network construction and subsequently lease out the conduits to broadband service providers.

Supplementary consultation on policy issues with connectivity released

Subsequently, on 19th May, 2021, TRAI released a Supplementary Consultation Paper on Roadmap to Promote Broadband Connectivity and Enhanced Broadband Speed, which looked at certain policy and revenue side issues with expanding connectivity. On 13th June, we submitted our comments on the supplementary paper. The core focus of our submission was to ensure that broadband infrastructure caters not only to needs based on connectivity and geography but also serves to alleviate sections of the society who have traditionally not been able to enjoy the benefits of access to the internet, for which had the following suggestions:

  1. Issues with indirect incentives and the misappropriation of revenue: Providing indirect incentives to the licensees can lead to several issues, misappropriation of revenues being the most prominent among them. Indirect incentives fail to guarantee that ISPs would invest the increased monies into expanding the user base, especially in rural and far flung areas. This is because indirect incentives provide licensees with significant amounts of discretionary power, as the very nature of indirect incentives allows licenses to choose how to deploy increased resources (for example, ISPs may choose to use these funds for debt servicing rather than to expand their user base).
  2. The need for direct performance linked incentives: Direct performance linked incentives may be a more effective incentive mechanism. There is evidence based merit in opting for post facto incentives based on the growth of the user base as the indisputable metric to determine the benefits of direct benefits. Direct incentives provide a concrete pathway towards increasing the user base.
  3. Key problems with public wifi networks: Public Wi-Fis are known to be susceptible to attacks and breaches, especially in the absence of data protection norms. The security architecture used in public Wi-Fis may often not possess sufficient security standards, and so may leak data. We also highlighted that in the installation of small cell wifi infrastructure public sector enterprises must be deployed since offering affordable rates may not always be viable for the private sector.
  4. Subsidies over Direct benefit transfers(DBT): There are several structural issues with direct benefit transfers including lack of infrastructure, difficulties in identifying beneficiaries, influence of local power brokers over DBT deliveries, withdrawal of state services, and  economic factors. We recommended that direct subsidies be provided that would involve subsiding the monthly packs purchased by subscribers, along with accompanying subsidies for installation charges incurred.

So now, after having conducted multiple consultations and received stakeholder feedback, what are the TRAI’s final recommendations for increasing internet connectivity and broadband access?

Did they listen to us?

On 31st August, 2021, TRAI finalised its recommendations on the Roadmap to Promote Broadband Connectivity and Enhanced Broadband Speed. The recommendations were a mixed bag; some of our recommendations were accepted, but not necessarily in their entirety.

The first key recommendation was the definition of broadband; TRAI accepted a revised definition of broadband, and even prescribed a high minimum threshold for broadband speed:

“Broadband is a data connection that is able to support interactive services including Internet access and has the capability of the minimum download speed of 2 Mbps to an individual subscriber from the point of presence (POP) of the service provider intending to provide Broadband service.”

Additionally, though the TRAI did increase the minimum download speed required for a broadband connection, they did not accept our inclusion of upload speed as a criterion for determining the type of broadband service. The three basic categories on the basis of download speed thus are:

  1. Basic Broadband: 2 Mbps to 50 Mbps to an individual subscriber.
  2. Fast Broadband:  50 Mbps to 300 Mbps to an individual subscriber.
  3. Super-fast Broadband: More than 300 Mbps to an individual subscriber.

Another key recommendation that was accepted was our suggestion about the adoption of a ‘dig smart’ policy. The TRAI  recommended that:

“To implement dig once policy and avoid frequent interruptions in services due to accidental damages of underground infrastructure, each utility provider should communicate its digging plans in an area to other utility providers operating in that area before submitting application for [Right of Way] permission to the appropriate authority. This would enable cross-sector collaboration for co-deployment of telegraph lines; and while the digging operations are in progress utility providers could protect their underground infrastructure also.”

To support the implementation this policy, TRAI also recommended the that the Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules, 2016 be amended to include a provision that allows for the establishment of a National Right of Way portal within one year that would allow collaboration across different sectors and different tiers of government so that comprehensive telecom infrastructure development plans can be developed.

Policy recommendations for connectivity

Our suggestion with regards to the development of small cell infrastructure by public sector entities was also accepted in part. As we had argued, a key goal of connectivity infrastructure projects is to increase the reach of digital networks to those who are sans internet. Thus, it is crucial that not only is high speed internet connectivity provided, but also that it is done so at low rates, which may not always be possible with the private sector. TRAI acknowledged some of these concerns and recommended that a central entity named ‘Common Ducts and Posts Development Agency’ (CDPDA) be set up for the planning and development of common ducts and posts infrastructure across the country. One of the functions of the CDPDA would be:

“Planning, development, and management of sharable common posts for laying overground aerial optical fiber cables and hosting of small cells equipments”

However, this agency would not be the exclusive entity that would develop common ducts and small cell infrastructure:

“If simultaneously private entities develop interest in establishment of common ducts [then] such entities should also be permitted after necessary registration.”

Lastly, our suggestion on the need for direct incentives for ISPs in the form of a subscriber based subsidy was partially accepted; TRAI recommended that for ISPs to avail incentives they would need to demonstrate:

  • A 15% increase in working fixed-line broadband subscribers year-on-year.
  • 20% of the above increase must be from rural areas (for which rural areas of the Delhi, Mumbai, or Kolkata service areas would not be counted).
  • For all india ISPs, an additional 10% increase in connections year-on-year in each of demarcated service areas.
  • For all india ISPs, 20% of the above increase must be from rural areas (for which rural areas of the Delhi, Mumbai, or Kolkata service areas would not be counted).

These incentives, however, would be given not as subsidies but as license fee exemptions.

The path forward

Even though all of our recommendations were not accepted, we thank TRAI for incorporating some of them. We now urge the Department of Telecommunications to operationalise these recommendations, so that we can ensure that the benefits of high speed broadband are made available to all Indians.

Important documents

  1. TRAI’s Final Recommendations on Roadmap to Promote Broadband Connectivity and Enhanced Broadband Speed (link)
  2. IFF’s comments on TRAI's Consultation Paper on Roadmap to Promote Broadband Connectivity and Enhanced Broadband Speed dated October 19, 2020 (link)
  3. IFF’s comments on TRAI’s ‘Supplementary Consultation Paper on Roadmap to Promote Broadband Connectivity and Enhanced Broadband Speed’ dated June 13, 2020 (link)