Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Tragedy of The Unused Commons

Hope for the good sense and guts to grasp the nettle and take decisions that are bold as well as wise.

“The tragedy of the commons” as you may recall, refers in economics to the overexploitation of shared resources because of unregulated access. The tragedy results from shared resources being depleted or degraded because users pursue their own interests, contrary to the common good. This leads to unsustainable depletion or degradation. The atmosphere and oceans are examples of such shared resources.

There are also reverse situations, in which resources that are available for the benefit of society are unused, to the detriment of the common good. In such cases, there are opportunity costs from disuse that result in detriments, because the benefits of use are foregone. India’s abundant sunlight is a good example. Given its abundance, a reasonable expectation might be that extensive innovation and market organisation would be focused on harvesting this potential energy. Alas, India is a laggard in innovation relating to solar power.

Another resource that is neither depleted nor degraded by usage but underused is radio frequency spectrum. The opportunity cost for unused spectrum is therefore even greater than for a degradable mineral resource such as coal, resulting in an extreme tragedy of unused commons.

Some Issues Need Resolution

The situation today is that swathes of spectrum are unused because of our inability, perhaps unwillingness, to develop the appropriate regulations and organisation to benefit from them. This is true of all unused and underused radio frequency spectrum, although some of it is the most useful means for broadband connectivityfor the majority of our rural and semi-urban population. It would also give more urban users less expensive access. For both sets, judicious use would enhance productivity and improve living conditions.
The entire thrust of the Digital India initiative requires these enabling policies and procedures, that is, the administrative rules and regulations that would enable the use of presently unused and therefore wasted spectrum. There are, of course, many other steps required than merely putting in place the regulations. The market structures and organisation have to be created under government leadership with other stakeholders in industry and civil society that would permit sustainable use of “the commons” — namely, the spectrum, if it were a shared resource instead of being apportioned in silos.

At present, private operators in this sector, except one, have too much debt, very low profitability, and insufficient network coverage. Services can be good in some locations, but countrywide, are spotty and not universally accessible. Yet, operators apparently want auctions, not now but at some time in the future (perhaps next year), for the essential resource that is the prerequisite for building the coverage that they don’t have although they are sorely needed, as they have been for years. While clearly impractical because of how auctions soak up capital, limiting subsequent investment in networks because of the deprivation of capital, operators reportedly want auctions in order to reduce competitive threats. 

Another baffling aspect of our reality is that the administration and regulator took no effective action to prevent the destruction of existing market structures in the telecom sector when there was a disruptive new entrant. Although, with overwhelming resources from unrelated activities, unsustainable strategies and tactics could be construed as jeopardising India’s current and future productivity. Meanwhile, the administration and the regulator dithered, debating theoretical concepts of what constitutes anticompetitive or predatory activity, and the judiciary remained on the sidelines.

Yet another aspect of puzzling inactivity is that there have been no steps to test certain promising technologies for permitting their use through appropriate policies in India, such as TV White Space or the development of MIMO — Multiple-Input-Multiple-Output — using arrays of antennas, yielding (a) greater throughput (b) over longer distances (c) to more users, thereby improving spectrum capacity for broadband. While initial tests for TV White Space, conducted after a delay of several years, have been promising (disclosure: the author was associated with some), proposals for larger follow-up trials have stalled. Without these, policymakers can’t even consider policies that would enable the development and use of TV White Space devices for extending optical fibre from gram panchayats to hundreds of thousands of village users.

In the press, confusing articles short on facts make policy formulation even more difficult and risky in this already technically and financially complex space. One instance is an article about Maharashtra’s Village Social Transformation initiative avoiding TV White Space because this technology has problems with security clearance, in addition to Foreign Contribution Regulation Act clearance for Microsoft’s sponsorship of the pilot. There's no mention of the real problem in India: getting permission to use TV White Space for purposes other than for Doordarshan’s broadcasts. The security risk in these frequencies is the same as in other frequencies, and transmission in any band can be monitored.

Another article suggests the government is considering allocating a high-speed wireless frequency band of unused spectrum (V band or 60 GHz, which is like short-range wireless optic fibre) on a first come, first served basis “which is a gross violation of the Supreme Court order”. Somewhere down the page is a surmise that since the Broadband India Forum is advocating de-licencing of this band and foreign companies support it, this “means that it should be allocated without auction on first come, first served basis”. The Broadband India Forum in its white paper clearly recommends aligning with an international standard, the Harmonised European Standard.1
 According to this, low power equipment within specified emission limits in this band doesn’t need a licence, like Wi-Fi, which is de-licenced spectrum that is open access and not allocated for exclusive use. Other de-licenced spectrum would not need to be allocated either, although in India, bands such as 60 GHz could be restricted to authorised operators.

It needs government intervention to cut the Gordian knot and initiate discussions on pooling spectrum for networks and working out practicable, sustainable options. Here’s hoping good sense and guts will help to make a start.

Shyam (no-space) Ponappa at gmail dot com

1: "V band - 60 GHz: The Key to Affordable Broadband in India"
White Paper by Broadband India Forum, November 9, 2016

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