May 19, 2024

The DoT’s recent decision effectively excluding ISP bids for WiMax spectrum resurrects memories of India’s past flights of fantasy. The fantasy this time around is the cellular operator’s commitment to nationally deploy 2.5 GHz spectrum for wireless broadband on WiMax and not hoard it or sneak it for 3G use should – if the DoT has its way – they be given both.

This is yet another kick-in-the-teeth for Indian ISPs as the nation still has a chastity belt around VoIP disallowing interconnection with the public fixed and mobile telephone networks. Now the punch-drunk Internet providers are barricaded from WiMax in what can only be a total flight from logic.

If the DoT really wants to have an actual, functional, no nonsense ubiquitous mobile truly “wireless broadband” service that allows the country to somewhat retain burnish on the “India Shining” plaque at the door, then the guy to deliver it is the one with no vested interest in legacy air interfaces engendering mobility.

Meaning, keep the cellular establishment away from WiMax because they’ll do everything with it but provide a no-nonsense ubiquitous mobile truly wireless broadband service that cannibalizes existing revenues and kills those hot 3G dreams.

In fairness our incumbent and cellular friends (same difference) would use WiMax for backhaul, meaning it’s a great way to connect base stations back to the mother ship while customers continue connecting to these base stations over existing cellular air interface investments. They’d also use WiMax to provide fixed wireless local loops (WLL) into homes in another area they consider relatively unexciting compared to cellular’s mother lode. Remember how Reliance sneaked cellular to the public in the guise of WLL? It was cellular mobility Reliance coveted not boring old fixed wireless local loops. And it’s WiMax’s vaunted mobility the cellular establishment wants to keep out of ISP reach and away from the user.

Keeping it real I’d probably do the same in cellular shoes. The Internet is synonymous with freebies, long distance and fixed line voice revenues are going that way too with the only telecom real estate left making money being inside the cell phone. You put a WiMax broadband eight-lane highway into the cell phone and there goes that walled garden.

No one asks the cellular establishment be denied spectrum for wireless broadband. Let them keep their existing chunks of 3.5 GHz admirably suited for WLL but don’t waste 2.5 GHz or 2.3 Ghz which god gave to engender mobility over wireless broadband footprints. Assign that mission to the ISPs.

Globally, the cellular establishment goes to incredible lengths to protect legacy investment and eschew air interfaces that lend themselves more naturally to Internet access. No reason to think their Indian chapter will do anything other than prevaricate thus until legacy costs are fully amortized and beyond. Consumers are to pay for cellular airtime until the establishment’s books cease demanding tithe. Until that happens, no video, YouTube or VoIP access is going to be efficiently allowed on to your mobile phone.

3G is the cellular establishment’s answer to broadband and they’ve already spent US$150Billion globally on licenses and similar change on deployment. Why would the Indian cellular establishment go with anything else? More so because tried and tested equipment is available today to make 2G & 3G networks appear seamless. WiMax is a totally different technology and while roaming is possible, it calls for a completely different outlook to providing what is essentially a very data centric service – somthing the cellular operator is not comfortable with as yet, unlike the ISP for whom it is his very bread & butter. Just a look at the imprecations cast at WiMax mobility by the august cellular lobby suggests their love for any technology other than 3G may not be all encompassing.

Ergo, any spectrum available for true wireless broadband over 2.5 GHz or 700 MHz is least likely to be used by the cellular establishment to speedily engender mobile access over non-cellular technologies like WiMax. The sensible way forward would be to have the cellular operator focus on proper 3G deployment while the larger ISPs are madated to deliver on national WiMax.

The DoT of course doesn’t see it this way and humors a lobby whose massive investment in legacy networks ensures they’ll continue buck trends positing that not only are more and more Indians going to spend more and more time on the Internet but we’ll do it over fatter bandwidth and wireless connectivity.

Doing the math, fatter bandwidth translates into at least 3 to 5 Mbits/second of ubiquitous wireless broadband speeds to the mobile handset if we are to go beyond SMS messaging or Blackberry and into the realm of true mobile internet access to our mail servers, to YouTube, Videoblogs, interactive gaming, and movies.

Given that the fastest cellular 3G speeds available to a cell phone today and forever are around 500 to 700 very expensive kbits/sec means we have a situation.

Almost everyone I see on the street in Indian metros flaunts state-of-the-art cell phones and so I suspect there’re enough such phones around to make my argument. Which is, when was the last time you used this WiFi capability? It’s a safe bet the wireless broadband highway into your mobile phone lies unused while you pay the cellular provider to check email over Blackberry and to download music files. As far as easy online access to YouTube or interactive TV & gaming go, forget about it because 3G or no 3G, cellular technology has no answers. The cellular establishment has circumscribed the user and we’re all culpable for allowing this to happen.

The reason you don’t use the mobile phone’s WiFi feature is because it is intentionally unfriendly but mainly because you are hooked to the cellular service due to its billion dollar mobility feature and that’s where you and your phone lock-on automatically. If ubiquitous mobile true wireless broadband did happen, you’d happily use it instead of buying expensive airtime on souped-up cellular air interfaces poorly suited for data downloads and you’d stop thumbing away on band-aids like Blackberry.

Why is all this so important to a still largely poor country like India? Because India today is in the same ballpark as China when it comes to Internet use. That’s the good news. The sad part is that most Indians still use dial-up and we aren’t close to even being close to China in broadband penetration. Given a proven penchant for mobility and video India however is fertile ground for massive growth in mobile broadband Internet access. The DoT decision favoring the camp opposing precisely this possibility does not help engender critical mass to complete with our giant friend hovering over the Himalayas. Today’s defense is in economic growth which is where more chunks of 2.5 GHz spectrum needs deployment, not in the fastness of South Block.

Early this year the Malaysian Regulator MCMC disallowed Malaysia’s cellular establishment from bidding for wireless broadband. He had good reason for his ruling as the cellular operators has absolutely nothing to show on past wireless broadband commitments.

Belaboring further, Google eyeballed the American cellular mastodon on behalf of ISPs in the current run up to the 2008 FCC auction for nation-wide chunks of 700 MHz. Early August this year the FCC Chairman announced ground rules for the slugfest and while not totally granting Google’s petition enough was ceded to ensure a ‘third pipe’ allowing ISPs a fighting chance to offer ubiquitous, true wireless broadband mobility in the face of a recalcitrant cellular lobby. Here’s the point. In America the arguments have advanced to whether a spectrum owner – Telco or ISP, doesn’t matter – should have to allow any and all devices to connect unencumbered and whether the owner should be forced to offer wholesale spectrum to other providers. To the cellular estabishments chagrin the FCC is also working with wireless broadband proponents to test devices that would access white (meaning unused) space in TV Broadcast spectrum. Rather than engage the Industry at such sophisticated levels DoT forces Indian ISPs to waste time fighting just to be allowed into the auction room.

what we see is that while regulators elsewhere have cause to suspect the cellular establishment’s bona fides the DoT appears starry eyed in faith and touchingly monogamous in intent.

The DoT may not realize (who am I kidding?) but their decision helps ensure a new much-needed technology doesn’t come in the way of the cellular establishment milking their incumbent networks into near perpetuity.

The preponderance of advantage enjoyed by incumbents means a regulator or deciding body like the DoT fails even if it simply remains scrupulously neutral. Be it the EU, North America, Australia, Malaysia or India for that matter in the past, we see definitive change only happen through rulings that give a real edge to newcomers and ISPs. In fairness, the TRAI’s forward thinking on regulatory matters is only matched by an inability to stand up to the DoT. So the ball being in DoT’s court when one sees it fail even at neutrality to the extent of openly favoring incumbents, attempted flippancy can’t really hide the distaste.

Should however the DoT choose to listen, radical departure from legacy may work wonders for users as well as the industry. That includes the cellular establishment whose own long term interests are ill-served by their present approach. Inviting the ISPs to bid as equals benefits all. One can only hope the DoT does what is best for the Indian consumer and for this wonderful technology that allows us so much magic over the ether.