Making broadband affordable for all

If the concept of broadband access delivered through home wi-fi can be extended geographically and for more services, this spectrum can be an instrument for far greater dispersal to the poor for services like broadband and more. In addition, the unlicensed spectrum has potential to be used for many utility and citizen services like data telemetry, meteorology, road safety, e-health, personal locators, smart grids, anti-theft devices, etc. In many developed nations, the wonders of unlicenced spectrum have been exploited to a great extent by unlicencing large chunks of this resource in many bands like 2.4G, 5.7G and 5.1G, in addition to few more. In India, a small beginning was made by unlicencing 2.4G and a small chunk of 5.7G for outdoor usage, but a lot is required to be done to exploit its full potential.

The experience of rural telephony in India has taught us that there was no growth for decades despite huge investments made by the government through USO subsidies. Only the launch of cheap mobiles in rural areas increased the rate of growth by more than a hundred times. Of course, the government would earn due to huge increase in GDP and its impact on tax revenues, a natural consequence of broadband increase in rural areas and for the poor. A number of studies on 3G rates have shown that this can never lead to widespread dispersal of broadband to the poor, and subsidy schemes will only lead to undesirable consequences, as in the case of rural telephones.

To ensure that the benefits of free unlicensed spectrum are realised, policymakers and regulators will have to identify spectrum for such usage based on the international best practices and experiences, which can improve drastically the applications of various technologies in license-exempt bands. Mobile operators today are also requiring huge amounts of additional spectrum. Fulfilling these demands through conventional ways will make the services much more expensive, and result in concentration in the hands of few operators, compromising competition. As a balanced approach, particularly for widespread expansion of broadband services and for a number of other emerging and desirable value added services, policymakers will have to look for more spectrum spaces for license-exempt usage and authorised fixed-price sharing through dynamic access to pooled spectrum slots.

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