Sunil Kumar is the Director of APAC for Beceem. Previously, Kumar worked at CoSystems Technologies in the US and with several leading GSM and CDMA carriers during the formative years of the wireless technology boom in India. He contributed in product management, infrastructure vendor relationship and technology planning at AirTel and Tata Indicom. Kumar was part of the team which started IS-95/CDMA based fixed wireless telephony in India and led the team which introduced smartcard-based public telephony system in the country. Kumar has earned a Bachelor of Technology in Mechanical Engineering from the IIT Madras and a Master of Technology in Industrial Management from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.
Much of India’s current economic boom is the result of India’s information and communications technology (ICT) revolution. ICT has helped India become a BPO – business process outsourcing – world leader and fuelled the explosive growth of India’s economy. ICTs are the catalyst, pushing the growth of India’s infrastructure. To complete the revolution, ICTs and the Internet have to reach India’s rural population. Given the lack of copper infrastructure, it will be wireless broadband that brings the Internet to rural areas.
There is, currently, a significant push to develop appropriate wireless technologies in India. These include Broadband CorDECT, an advanced wireless access system designed with the economic realities of a country like India in mind. Midas Communication Technologies and IIT, Madras, have developed it, in association with Analog Devices, USA, CDMA data and others. Both the government and the carriers have encouraged the growth of broadband, and the need for scalable and reliable technology has increased. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has clearly stated its objectives for broadband availability in the country. The recent formation of the Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology (CEWIT) has made it clear that the proliferation of technology and wireless solutions beyond handsets is becoming a reality for portable and fixed indoor/outdoor applications in developing nations. Many years ago, access to seas and ports influenced the growth of economies. During the past 100 years, the growth catalysts for economies evolved from railway access, to roads and then air travel. In the digital age, it is clear that economies need broadband access to sustain growth. Today, broadband access is a catalyst for businesses growth and survival. India’s growing economy offers a tremendous opportunity not only for housing, roads and power infrastructure vendors, but also for the suppliers of telecommunications infrastructure. India has seen significant growth in IT – information technology. Financial services and the auto sector have exceeded expectations, but their pace of growth has not been in proportion to the development of its communications infrastructure. Copper pair penetration for broadband access is just over four percent of the total population. There are less than a million broadband lines in India. Copper-based broadband access has not grown to meet the aggressive targets set by the DoT. In 2004, India defined one of the first broadband policies of its kind, a complete national mandate for a broadband infrastructure. The policy targeted three million broadband (256 Kbps or more) Internet connections in the country by the end of 2005, but by December 2005, there were only a disappointing 835,000 broadband connections. In contrast, India has more than 10 million households with PCs and more than six million Internet subscribers. The alarming lack of availability is hampering the growth and proliferation of broadband in India. The lack of appropriate content and applications, especially in rural and semi-urban areas, has limited the demand for PCs and, consequently the growth in broadband demand. Given the lack of copper wiring, the only viable option for residential broadband is a scalable wireless technology. Over the years, carriers have tried a variety of wireless options for broadband Internet connectivity. Several Internet service providers (ISPs) use proprietary solutions from various vendors; but this does not favour mass deployment. Incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) have tried to provide access via cable modems, satellite dishes and DSL; however, there are inherent issues regarding customer acquisition. Traditional wireless solutions Attempts by GSM service providers to use GPRS – General Packet Radio Service – based data services for their mobile subscribers have had limited success, given the lack of compelling reasons to justify the cost of the service. The current equipment offerings (Blackberry, Nokia PDAs, etc.) are prohibitively costly at an average US $500, and there too few applications in wide use to drive consumer interest. The subscription rates for the PCMCIA cards offered by the CDMA operators for broadband are also still much too high for the average user. India has tremendous potential for broadband service growth. Given its mix of features and performance, WiMAX seems to be the best current option for a developing nation like India. In India an operator is faced with high subscriber density (over 1000 households per line/km), fixed deployment, low CPE (customer premises equipment) cost (under $100), low average revenue per user (ARPU) at $6–8 per month, and bandwidth of 256 to 512 kbps. WiMAX deployments in urban or rural India will need to use MIMO and beam forming (technologies that enhance signal reception) and offer advanced QoS (quality of service). Availability of these features will help optimise the use of existing infrastructure and lower deployment costs. Cell sites and antenna towers, for example, could be used as WiMAX base stations without loss of coverage or density. Broadband wireless access in India is characterised by: – The lack of copper infrastructure: since most of the copper access is controlled by the incumbent government carriers, there is not enough available for DSL broadband access. It costs some US$150 to US$200 per subscriber to lay copper access. Consequently, operators must rely upon non-copper technologies to be cost-effective. – The lack of accessible mobile broadband data technology: existing mobile operators – GSM, TDM and CDMA – have faced many years delay in the availability of high-capacity, scalable, cost-effective high-speed data technology. All are traditionally voice networks with an IP (Internet Protocol) overlay for limited data access. – Increasing PC penetration: Residential PC penetration has grown over 40% in the last two years. There are an estimated 10 million household PCs in India and over six million Internet users, but less than 900,000 with broadband access. – Applications drive broadband: There is enough content for the broadband access customer to utilize the pipe. The incremental profit from access comes from bundling applications that run over a broadband network. Currently, these applications are not part of the business paradigm because of narrow Internet access. – Rural or Semi-urban Demand: India is still an agrarian economy, but there has been huge growth in the market for consumer goods, durables, autos and more significantly telephony. Wireless will be the dominant delivery mode for broadband services just as wireless now dominates voice ser-vices. Thanks to its true broadband performance, early availability and cost advantages, WiMAX is best-positioned to serve this huge Indian market. – Several Indian service providers have already acquired suitable spectrum licenses to deploy wireless broadband services and are planning early rollouts in 2006. – The revised targets for broadband penetration in India are aggressive: nine million subscribers by the end of 2007 – 8.65 million subscribers and 340,000 subscribers/month are to be added during the next 24 months. FTTH (fibre to the home) or copper cannot meet this goal. – The fibre ‘last mile’ in India extends about 15 kilometres away from a fibre termination point. Wireless can bridge this gap more quickly. – This rapid expansion of the market requires tapping the vast rural connectivity market. As can be seen from mobile voice subscription growth, a majority of subscriber growth is coming from tier 2 and tier 3 towns. This is a positive indicator for data services in these underserved markets. Companies like ITC have been pursuing the e-Choupal initiative for some time. The day is not far off where each of the 600,000 villages in this country will have broadband connection. This growth cannot come from fixed line access. In 2005, operators added only 4.06 million lines while 4.46 million mobile connections were added in December 2005 alone. Broadband wireless access market opportunity – WiMAX India is the only country where 256+ kbps broadband access costs less than a <64 kbps voice connection. This is due to cost cutting by BSNL/MTNL (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd/Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd) to generate additional revenue and to meet the goals set by the government for broadband connectivity. So what is the real market potential? – Residential PCs: there are currently over 10 million home PCs in the country. 3.3 million PCs were added last year. India expects to have 20 million home PCs by the end of 2008. Assuming WiMAX would serve 50 percent of these at US $200 per subscriber, the market could generate as much as $2 billion per year. – Internet access: currently, there are 6.5 million Internet accounts but less than 800,000 have a broadband connection, the vast majority are via dial-up. The potential for broadband growth and is high. Challenges – Service delivery: the deployment model will be simple and easy. The ease of use of off-the-shelf modems, over-the-air activation, service provisioning and customer support will be key factors. – PC penetration: the government is working to increase PC penetration; any growth in computer usage will naturally drive broadband access growth. Rural broadband access Half of India’s more than 600,000 villages do not even have a basic telephone infrastructure. Providing broadband to rural areas would open up opportunities never before seen in India. e-Governance SWANS, the State Wide Area Networks initiative implemented in a few states, is an attempt to provide rural areas with on-line access to government services. Whether it is accessing information, accessing records, exchanging basic information, providing adult education or providing health care services, it will help change the economic landscape of rural India. States such as Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have used this initiative to connect sites within their regions, but the lack of broadband connectivity has made it difficult to bring these services to much of India; WiMAX networks can resolve a great many access problems. Case study: e-Choupal by ITC ITC’s International Business Division, one of India’s largest exporters of agricultural commodities, has created e-Choupal – an electronic version of a village meeting place – as an efficient way to improve its supply chain. e-Choupal is the largest Internet-based initiative in rural India. The 5,372 e-Choupal kiosks currently serve more than 3.5 million farmers in over 31,000 villages in seven states. Initially, the e-Choupal had to contend with a variety of problems caused by the limited availability of power supply, telecom and bandwidth infrastructure. Imparting skills to first-time Internet users in remote areas of rural India was also a challenge. ITC plans to extend the e-Choupal project to cover some 10 million people by setting up 20,000 e-Choupals in 15 states over the next few years. Wireless technology will play an important role in India’s growth within the global economy.