Telecom, especially wireless, was supposed to be India’s ticket to economic development. Most operators contend that the government is trying to extract too much from them. The top four firms for instance must have paid close to $15 billion over the last four years itself as revenue share, licence fee, service tax and spectrum charges. Industry watchers contend that if they (the government) tries and extracts more, it will only be counter-productive.
One of the biggest obstacles faced by operators when it comes to breaking even is cost of spectrum (when you consider the rock bottom tariffs), especially when acquired through auctions. In India, spectrum is expensive, scarce and unpredictable. Those need to be changed for operators to be able to innovate around long-term investment plans.
Auctions must encourage competition between not just players but also technologies, say, 2G vs. 3G or GSM vs. CDMA. Technology neutrality is absolutely critical because just like you don’t want a player to have an undue advantage, you should also make sure a technology too doesn’t have one. When regulators pick a technology before the auctions, they’re essentially picking winners
Doing this allows savvy operators to marry the most efficient technology to the spectrum they purchase. Naturally, they’ll pick one that’ll have maximum consumer value.
A unified licence should mean an operator is free to offer whatever combination of technology [it] wants, even if that means a 2G plus LTE data card. The unified licence automatically takes care of revenue leakage.
There is also a case for offering slightly preferential treatment to those operators whose licences got scrapped and are re-bidding, versus those that are completely new. Globally, it’s a well-accepted strategy among regulators to reserve blocks of spectrum for new entrants and provide them certain handicaps. But that is now a political question in India. Incumbents believe that subjectivity and artificial restriction on the number of bidders will only lead to market distortion.
The long-term goal for the regulator must be to figure how to bring more spectrum for auction, more frequently. What is considered reasonable spectrum in most markets like the US and Russia for an operator is 15-20 MHz? That should actually be higher in India, given the size of our market. On the contrary Indian operators have to contend with 4X the number of consumers on networks working on fourth of the spectrum.
Unfortunately we have too much spectrum divided in narrow slices across too many operators, in itself leading to greater wastage. Every time spectrum is divided between two operators, guard bands are reserved around them to prevent accidental interference between them. The more the number of operators, the more the bands. About 15 percent of our spectrum is currently lost due to such guard bands, and in some cases I’ve even heard of 20 percent
After issues around the migration of Defence spectrum are sorted out, next up should be a comprehensive spectrum plan that includes more of lower bands that offer greater propagation at lower cost. Unnecessary secrecy and lack of transparency are three-fourths of the problem in telecom. If you reveal all relevant information in an auction, then players can decide for themselves
Indian Telecom’s New Deal too will need the “Three Rs”—Relief for serious operators and poorly served consumers, Recovery of the sector’s vast potential and Reform in order to bring lasting transparency and fairness.If we don’t get it right this time, the next 10 years of Indian telecom will be like the last 10 years.
This crisis really, never mind the cliché, is an opportunity.