Economic development enabling networks

( Times of India report, “Minimum broadband speed may be raised 4 times” (Aug 21, 2016) illustrates the lack of understanding of reality by Government of India regarding broadband.

“I propose to take up the matter with the communications ministry,” IT minister Ravi Shanker Prasad [2] told TOI. “We will consider laying down a policy for increasing the minimum broadband speed from the current levels.”

“The last time minimum internet speed was revised was in August 2014 when it was doubled from 256kbps to 512kbps. Experts and industry analysts say that the present speed is ‘abysmally slow.’ and is inadequate to match up with the fast-developing app ecosystem that is fueling the growth of internet adoption across the country.”

“Telecom operators in the country are moving to 4G services that promise data speeds in excess of 10mps. The government also feels that there is a need to upgrade the speed on fixed line broadband connections that are reaching homes, especially when it has initiated a highly ambitious broadband outreach program to connect as many as 2.5 lakh (250K) gram panchayats through fiber cable network called ‘Bharat-Net.'” [2]

“According to a report by Nasscom and Akamai, India had around 330 million fixed and mobile internet subscriptions as of December, 2015.”

Attempt to legislate minimum broadband speed by the IT minister is laughable. Increasing the minimum broadband requires installing communication systems that can provide true broadband speeds. The US FCC tried the regulatory method of increasing the broadband speeds, with the result that 39% of rural America do not have broadband [2].

Even the current speed of 512kbps is available only sporadically. During peak load times (evenings mostly), the network throughput drops to 2 or 3 kbps, or a few bytes per second, or stops completely — for both wireless and wired connections. This is because as the number internet users increased, there was no corresponding investment in upgrading network capacity. So setting minimum broadband speeds by regulations will have no effect for improving broadband services in India, without seriously addressing the network infrastructure investments needs. (The use of access line speed to indicate network connection speed is misleading. What is relevant is the connection throughput, regardless of the connection line speed.)

Another reason for the low performance of internet in India is the three choke points at Chennai [2, 3], Mumbai [2, 3, 4] and Agarthala [2] to internet backbone. Internet is a distributed network, hence performance improves with increasing number of connections to the backbone. Those responsible for the internet architecture in India either do not understand the basic principles of internet, or improving network performance is not their priority.

“Telecom operators in the country are moving to 4G services” is incorrect. Only Reliance Jio [2] is seriously deploying 4G. The reason is 5G technology [2] trials have already begun. So why would other service providers deploy 4G, which will be obsolete by the time deployment is completed.

In addition, there is another issue which is getting no attention at all. Broadband has the potential to enhance an economy tremendously. For example, in healthcare, education, energy and environment, economic opportunity, government performance, civic engagement, public safety and others. However, using the advanced applications require the use of a desktop, laptop or a tablet computer. Using a small screen device such as a smartphone will not provide full scale application functionality. But number of smartphone-only internet users are also counted to puff up the internet user statistics. Such user statistics distorts information about the potential economic benefits. A suggestion is to categorize internet users into two (minimum) categories:

  1. (Full) broadband users, who access internet using full size screen and reasonable network connectivity, and
  2. Broadband lite users, who access internet using small screens and/or limited connectivity.

It is only true broadband users who can gain most of the much-hyped benefits of internet.

One of the current market distortions is that internet has become primarily an “always-on” mega entertainment medium, leading to speculations as to what happened to the hyped economic gains from internet (“The great productivity puzzle“). The primary reason for the missing economic productivity in the advanced economies is because much of the new tech development and deployments have been entertainment focused.

This presents a historic opportunity for India to lead the development and deployment of economic-development-oriented network systems (as opposed to entertainment-centric networks.) Such an initiative can provide tremendous boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s Make in India program. However, an initiative for developing economic-development-oriented network systems requires “enlightened leadership,” which may be missing.

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