Shyam Ponappa | August 7, 2014
An uneasy sense of drift has set in after the anticipation that accompanied the swearing-in of the National Democratic Alliance government. Surely, the government understands that its real task is to build on hopes and expectations, to channel energies, to organise and coordinate for results, even perhaps try bipartisan teams? The opportunity is to overcome factionalism and harness people's energies, instead of floundering in disunity. We need transformative policies, programmes and incentiveswith purpose.
Resolute efforts in specific sectors can change this sense of the same old same-old. Two aspects of infrastructure that need early attention are: first, solar power, and second,digital infrastructure (see "A great start by Modi government", June 5, Business Standard).
Solar power, critically important in its own right, is essential for digital infrastructure because of the poor grid supply. Disappointingly, the steps taken are more of the same. For instance, the renewal of the national solar mission. for an increased 1,500 megawatts, is on the same lines as before - that is, a 30 per cent subsidy for solar farms, accelerated depreciation and renewable energy credits (RECs) that provide subsidies for a fixed period. While the target is higher, it is minuscule compared to the potential, and relative to other energy sources. For distributed user installations, interest-free loans seem ineffectual, because the high prices are unchanged, although payable in instalments - hardly ground-breaking.
Could the government try a more radical incentive of zero tax on equipment in addition to a 30 per cent subsidy, with immediate reimbursement and stiff penalties for misuse? Lower capital costs would probably induce much more extensive deployment, spurring manufacturing and innovation through sheer volume. This is likely for solar farms as well, and these incentives could be made available if such farms are really desirable. The government would lose upfront taxes on equipment, but avoid the cost and complexities of the RECs and accelerated depreciation, while gaining taxes downstream from increased productivity.
Similarly, in communications, we need countrywide access to broadband at reasonable prices. Users could benefit from applications such as education at all levels, from secondary school to college to continuing education for adults, healthcare; e-commerce; remote working/telecommuting; government services, information; and entertainment. Of course, once we have broadband, we'd need the range of useful, attractive content and services that result in improved user satisfaction, as well as productivity. These "supplementary effects" will undoubtedly take time to develop and play out, but the prerequisite is the access.
On this score, the much-awaited spectrum sharing recommendations are sorely disappointing. Their intent is puzzling because they are so restrictive, limiting sharing to two operators who have acquired frequencies in the same band in the same manner, with a cap of 50 per cent.
Perhaps the telecom regulator's recommendations on spectrum sharing are an opening gambit to explore active network sharing. The logic for network and spectrum sharing is compelling. With India's self-created spectrum constraints and genuine deficiencies of capital and network coverage, the rational approach for our developing economy would be to optimise their use, as with roads. For this, active network sharing, including radio access networks and spectrum, is the most efficient solution, as is the case for roads.
Unfortunately, our policies are at the other extreme, of spectrum auctions and exclusive networks. This is least efficient for extending underdeveloped infrastructure services, as building and operating multiple exclusive networks requires the most resources, including capital. Auctions may be a reasonable alternative where there's existing infrastructure, and the issue is of allocating resources to whoever can make the best use of them. In our situation and given our needs, the way we build and operate roads may be a better alternative to achieve coverage.
To see why, compare the contrasting approaches of building communications networks with highways and roads. Road developers not only don't have to pay auction fees for the right to build roads, they are paid periodically for the construction of the assets. Ownership of the assets is then transferred to the state or other agency, and all road tax and toll payers may use the facilities. Similarly, all licensed operators could have access to communications networks on payment. While payback periods are often longer for roads, the nature of the financial flows are the same: capital must be invested in building the network before revenues are generated from users. People need to be informed and educated about this inescapable process.
Sparsely populated rural areas have lower revenue potential than urban areas. Hence, communications networks and services in rural areas lag because of commercial considerations. This deprivation is aggravated by front-loading auction fees for spectrum, which curtails investments in the networks and services in areas with lower potential. Also, unless operators pool resources, exclusive usage militates against full utilisation of the infrastructure. Our policies should reflect all this, instead of restricting spectrum access and sharing, including for 3G.
The real irony is that the pay-for-use principle is well accepted for roads; yet the opposite principle of auctions is used for communications networks. This is the unintended consequence of accepting auctions without thinking through what we need in our circumstances compared with advanced economies, and how to achieve those objectives.
Our spectrum policies have resulted in small bands of non-contiguous spectrum holdings that severely restrict capacity. Besides, operators have to invest heavily simply to protect the assets built. Yet countrywide broadband services need more spectrum to be used much more effectively to facilitate last-mile access. The kind of solution we need is for all remaining spectrum to be used for a common-access network, owned by a consortium of operators, including state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam as "anchors". Once integrated with existing networks, operators can commercially deploy services with enhanced capacity, for which they pay as they use, and get paid. Broadband can be revolutionised by setting this up and converting spectrum fees to pure revenue sharing, as happened for mobile telephony with licence fees years ago. With the benefit of hindsight, the fees can be set low from the start, with regulatory oversight to avoid predatory pricing, and growth will most likely explode.
Shyam nospace Ponappa at gmail dot com