Among 5 Parallel Summits, Wireless for communities & Open Spectrum Summit focusing on ‘Empowering Communities through Open Media Access’ was one of the major Summits organized by DEF & Ford Foundation on the occasion of Manthan Award South Asia & Asia Pacific 2012 at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. The session focused on arriving at better understanding of unlicensed band, free spectrum and its importance to serve last mile connectivity in India and other developing countries.

Chair & Moderator: Anriette Esterhuysen, Executive Director, Association for Progressive Communications (APC), South Africa

Power Panelist

  • Mr. Anoop Singh, Special Secretary – IT & COMMUNICATION
  • Dr. Ravina Aggarwal, Program Officer for Media Rights and Access, Ford Foundation
  • Rajnesh Singh, Regional Bureau Director for Asia, ISOC
  • Mahabir Pun, Founder, Nepal Wireless
  • Michael Ginguld, Chief Executive Officer, AirJaldi
  • Mahesh Venkateswaran, CEO, KGVK Social Enterprises Limited
  • Amitabh Singhal, Former CEO, NIXI
The session was chaired by Ms. Anriette Esterhuysen, Executive Director – Association for Progressive Communications (APC), South Africa and was moderated by Mr. Subho Ray, President – IAMAI. The Chair opened the summit and asked all the key panelists to share their views on how the free spectrum can be understood and utilized for the general good. Also the panelists were requested to shed some light on how to approach spectrum in not only policy and regulatory terms but also in the application and implementation terms.
First panelist to share his views with the house was Mr. Amitabh Singhal from PIR. Mr. Singhal shared that he used to run an organization called ISP Association of India. He said that earlier the free spectrum which we talk about was not actually free. It was all licensed and paid for. They had a long struggle with the govt. to force them to follow global standards and have at least some free spectrum. They finally succeeded in the year 2005-06 when the 2.4 GHz band was made licensing and royalty free. Since then they have come a long way and 3.3 and 5.4 GHzhave also been freed up. Mr. Singhal mentioned the NOFN framework that was been discussed by Mr. Ravi Shankar in the inaugural session. Though the project claims to connect all the villages and households in the country, connecting the “last mile” to the highway is the real challenge. In a country like India where we have lots of accessibility issues and supply bottle necks, the connectivity of last mile remains a challenge. It is here where the free spectrum will play a major role. The efforts of launching technology known as Wimax are also in full swing. Telecommunication companies are making their best efforts to launch this technology at the earliest. In short, efforts to promote both types of spectrums, paid and non-paid are in full swing.
Next speaker was Mr. Anoop Singh, Special Secretary – IT & COMMUNICATION (Government of Andhra Pradesh). He said that a revolution is all set to be made by the NOFN project. He said that this project now faces two challenges: first is the last mile connectivity, as explained Mr. Singhal and the second challenge is “rendering of content” on the free spectrum. The observation he has made during the past 6 months in events like this, is that small and brilliant efforts are being undertaken by enterprises throughout the country; even in the remotest of the places. But the overall impact is not yet visible. But soon enough we will witness the impact and a revolution that will boost the growth of our country by leaps and bounds.
Dr. Ravina Aggarwal, Program Officer – Media Rights and Access (Ford Foundation) then shared his views and commented that we should be rather cautious while using the word “revolution”. Despite of the optimism that is associated with the word, she feels two issues are deeply related to the use of the word in the context of mobile services. First issue is that though we see an enormous growth in the sector, it has been more or less inequitable. Secondly, though content is important but the service delivery provisions can’t be taken for granted. Both are equally important. In the nutshell she said that though we are constantly moving towards better technologies but the promise of scaling of the services hasn’t been delivered yet. Thus calling this development as revolution would be an over statement.
After listening to all this conversation, someone from the audience raised a point. In the most sarcastic manner he commented that “I am the last mile who uses internet in the village”. He said that he doesn’t know what the technology is being talked about. Also the apps that have been discussed throughout the day were never asked for and thus he feels that somewhere needs of people are not being matched with the products and technology that is being offered. One of the panelists, Mr. Michael Ginguld, Chief Executive Officer – AirJaldi responded to this issue.He briefly explained what a spectrum is and specifically what free spectrum is. He also told about the slots available for free spectrum. He then put forward that he believed were necessary in this discussion. Firstly, the radio waves or the spectrum is limited resource as per physics. No matter if you use all of the bandwidth available, it will not solve the problem of delivering content. This could be solved only by more efficient use of the existing bandwidth. He further added that the success of the Wi Fi technology in the 5.8 GHz range was partly due to cheap cost of equipment and partly due absence of license fee. Even if lower down the license fee for the 700 or 900 MHz,there is no equipment which is even close to the price of the 2.4 or 5.8 GHz range. Last but not the least, the battle which we are trying to fight against digital illiteracy is huge and we need to decide whether it is justified or not. Also we need to do the best with the resources we have.
Next panelist to share his view was Mr. Mahesh Venkateswaran, CEO – KGVK Social Enterprises limited. KGKV has been partnering with Michael’s organization for past 7 years and have been literally struggling lately to spread the network in village areas. Though he is unaware of the technology talked about or the policies, he could certainly speak from the demand side. He seconded the point that Michael raised about the utilization of existing resources. He said that if digital inclusion via mobiles and internet were the priority of the authorities then they should start not with ultra-rural areas but regions which lie in the periphery of urban areas. These are the places with fluctuating connectivity and where existing operators could do a good job. Somehow, they are lacking the intensity to do so. After strengthening the connectivity in these areas, cluster based approach can be used and the benefits could then be spread out to the grass root level. He was then asked by the chair that what was preventing the required partnership in these areas. Mr. Mahesh through his example explained that how difficult it was for him to setup a rural BPO. He told everyone how he was struggling for network and no big player such as Airtel would come and setup the network there. It was the AirJaldi that helped them in setting up that network. He said that at the end it is the pricing factor that plays crucial role in India.
The next panelist was Mr. Mahabir Pun from Nepal Wireless shared that he runs a small ISP known as Nepal Wireless. They work basically in the remote Himalayan villages and try to connect them with internet. Referring to the facts that as many as 80% of population in Nepal lives in villages he said that people can’t afford internetnetworks. No matter if telecom operators are introducing 3G or 4G technology, it will still cost a good amount and most people can’t afford these technologies. And thus open spectrum is of utmost importance in these areas. Telecom companies are certainly unable to provide their services for free, since they have to pay huge license fees, it is important that we realize the importance of open spectrum. He said that Nepal govt. is also making similar attempts to connect all the district centres with optic fiber network, but what about the connectivity beyond that point. For this Nepal Govt. has made a regulation that anyone who wants to provide internet service in the rural areas can do so by paying a license fee of Rs. 100 per year. Similar attempts need to be made in India, so that not only internet services are made available to villagers and the rural ISPs can earn some additional income. Thus it is not only about opening up of spectrum but also creating resolutions for the better utilization of the spectrum.
The last panelistof the session to share his views on the open spectrum was Mr. Rajnesh Singh, Regional Bureau Director for Asia – ISOC. He said that as more and more TV channels are getting digitized, their earlier bandwidth is getting vacant. Also there are number of organizations who haven’t really utilized that bandwidth allotted to them and in fact can be used. The underlying point, however is that how many of these frequencies are feasible and can be used at an affordable price. He added that at the end of day, it all boils down to cost. Today no such chipsets are available that can be used to effectively used the bandwidth of 700 or 900 MHz, while the 2.4 Ghz chips can now fitted to almost any device today. Thus R&D has an important role to play so that mass production of chipsets for other frequencies can be done and at a very cheap price. He also prophesized the need of a balance in the Govt. polices. Further speaking, he said that it’s all right to earn billions of dollars by the sake of spectrum but then they should also think of providing some kind of network access to the ones who certainly can’t afford the service of paid spectrum.
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