Third Generation (3G) and Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) is a stepping stone to a new era of telecommunications. There are already more than 300 million 3G subscribers around the world and, as we already know, WiMAX that enables high speed wireless data access has also joined the ranks of 3G technologies. It is unfortunate that we are behind in enabling the best technologies to serve our country. The introduction of these technologies will whet the appetite for multimedia services in our voice-centric market.
3G is not just a data service technology. It has much greater capacity and spectrum efficiency than second generation (2G) systems. It will support more subscribers and traffic, a boon in densely-populated urban areas where spectrum is scarce and valuable than elsewhere. Therefore, our policies have to enable both 3G and BWA (through WiMAX) for efficient delivery of triple play— voice, data and entertainment.
The Revised Information Memorandum (RIM) by the Department of Telecom (DoT) is significantly different from the first memorandum issued in August 2008. It has been stated in the memorandum that one of the objectives of the auction is to resolve congestion issues related to 2G mobile services. However, there is no mention of permitting voice through Internet. The recommendation for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) made by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is still before the government. The eligibility conditions make a mention of UAS (Universal Access Service) Licence for a new entrant, but it is unclear if unrestricted services of voice would be permitted. The present reading of the memorandum does appear that voice services had not been envisaged for BWA. Due to this reason alone, the numbering plan for BWA has not been indicated. The denial of VoIP will not be viewed by investors as a progressive measure, particularly when some of the technologies are likely to be cost-effective in rural areas.
An important issue is the reserve price for auction of spectrum. The need is to balance conflicting interests of promoting its efficient utilisation, recovering administrative costs and encouraging affordability in the provision of 3G and BWA services. There are already 5-9 mobile operators in each service area. The service providers have already invested in infrastructure. While the revenue concern of the government is legitimate, it is equally relevant to minimise the risk of excessive investment in 3G network deployment, keeping in mind the global experience.
The memorandum also restricts bidding for 800 MHz spectrum to only such UAS licensees who are entitled to provide services in 800 MHz frequency band, i.e., CDMA operators. Its legal basis in the context of DoT decision in favour of crossover technology is important. For instance, the GSM players may also stake a claim to bid.
A viewpoint can be advocated that spectrum once allotted through the auction mode should not link its use for any particular technology. This would prevent any rigidity regarding choice of technology. Given the rapid improvement in urban infrastructure, spread of computers and availability of value-added services, some degree of flexibility would encourage service providers to push up the value of spectrum in auction.
The pre-bid conference in DoT will clarify many issues. Auction must proceed as the time has come for India to embrace next generation of mobile telephony.
Nripendra Misra is former chairman of TRAI