|Asia-Pacific III 2008
|Liberating mobile services in India
|Head of Broadcasting Functions
Amitabh Kumar is the Head of Broadcasting Functions for the Zee network in India and overseas. Mr Kumar is also the Corporate Director of Technology for the Essel Group of Companies, which includes Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. ( ZEEL), Dish TV, Zee News and other group channels. Mr Kumar is the author of two books on Mobile Broadcasting: Mobile TV and Mobile Broadcasting with WiMAX. Previously, Mr Kumar was the Director of Operations at VSNL amongst others. Amitabh Kumar holds a BE (Hons) degree in Electronics from BITS Pilani, India.
Although India has made remarkable use of its ICT resources to build its economy, its telecommunications regulatory framework is still geared to an age when technology changed slowly. This has slowed growth in much, needed services, such as mobile broadband that, if the spectrum were appropriately licensed on a technology and service neutral basis, would provide a considerable stimulus to social and economic growth. New regulations would open the market to a wide range of important broadband and multimedia services.
Countries around the globe have witnessed a mobile revolution since the beginning of this century. First it happened in Europe and United States and now has moved to Asia and Africa. India today is adding over ten million users a month and China has over 500 million mobile phones and growing. The impact mobile devices have on the social fabric of the countries is barely understood. Nor has the potential of new mobile applications to transform lifestyles and make major changes been understood to any significant degree. Had they understood the impact, governments and regulators would have been much more proactive in enabling new services and providing a regulatory framework to transform their countries. India has 250 million mobile phones but only ten million broadband connections, owing to a restrictive regulatory framework. There are only half as many TV sets as mobiles phones, and only one-third as many cable and satellite residential connections. By 2010, one in every two persons will have a mobile phone. Nevertheless, the power of wireless or mobile medium failed to make any impact on the regulatory processes and licensing regime. In India, the 3G spectrum is yet to be allocated, the discussion on how it should be done is more than three years old. While other countries, even in Asia, have moved beyond 3G to HSDPA or EV-DO, the fastest-growing market in the world has only GSM spectrum, at levels among the most constrained in the world, that do not allow large-scale implementation of mobile multimedia and broadcasting services. Mobile multimedia broadcasting Mobile multimedia broadcasting has the potential to reach one in every two persons in India and almost everyone in Europe and North America. The initial success of AM Radio in India in the 1960s showed that popular services that reach the masses go beyond technology or pricing issues. There are few technologies more popular than basic connectivity and the access to information that mobile or wireless brings. Mobile multimedia broadcasting, including mobile TV, radio and access to interactive services, which deliver rich information, directly impacts the lives of vast numbers of people throughout the world. Mobile TV can be in any language and it cuts across the barriers of state and religion. Mobile broadcasting brings not just mobile TV, but online communities, instant messaging, presence services and interactive access to commodity and financial markets. Mobile multimedia broadcasting is no longer limited to high priced handsets; an increasing number of affordable handsets are starting to reach the market and prices will continue to drop as production volumes grow. Wireless potential Wireless access has been available for many years now. Its most visible manifestations are wireless LANS and WiFi hotspots. These allow Internet access at airports, hotels, cybercafés, university campuses and yachts using universally available WiFi cards or chips embedded in laptops, PDAs and other devices. Users can browse the Net, make VoIP calls using software such as Skype, access mail or upload pictures and videos from digital cameras. They can also watch video streaming from any sources or download video files. It is common to find thousands of WiFi hotspots in major cities. Hotspots cover only small areas and can only be used while the user remains within this area, even though there may be another WiFi spot adjoining it; WiFi provides fixed wireless broadband access. WiMAX is a very important wireless technology that will permit low cost rollout of next-generation networks. In many regions it will substitute wired infrastructure and provide enriched broadband access to voice communications, and a wide variety of broadcast services of all types. The regulatory conundrum New technologies like mobile broadband, broadcasting and WiMAX have a time-to launch from specifications that can be as small as three years as in the case of both DVB-H and Mobile WiMAX technologies. However, the spectrum and regulatory framework has to be put in place quickly to keep pace with the growth of the technologies. At present, framing the regulations, licensing and spectrum allocation take almost twice as much time. One sees a stark contrast when analysing India’s broadband wireless and mobile services. Despite the vast amounts of mostly unused spectrum available, after a decade, the number of broadband users has stagnated at around ten million whilst mobile telephony adds almost the same number – ten million – of subscribers each month. The 2.3 GHz and 2.5-2.69 GHz frequency bands, for which mobile WiMAX certified devices are available, that can provide VoIP to large areas at low cost have not yet been allocated. The difference between the two services is generally attributed to high cost of rolling out fixed line broadband and the higher cost of user devices (customer premise equipment, CPE) such as PCs. However, it is not these costs but the regulatory framework and the convenience of mobility that has made the difference in the growth of the two services. In fact, mobile networks now represent nearly 50 per cent of broadband Internet access. The regulatory framework and the licensing regimes have been very harsh on broadcasting to mobile devices. India framed its broadband policy to protect the incumbent operators hence Voice over Internet (VoIP) calls were not allowed to connect to any domestic fixed line or mobile telephone network. VoIP was restricted to overseas calls, making it useless for all voice calls in the country except to the few connected computers. Policy for 3G mobiles, where growth has been high, has yet to be announced and mobile WiMAX, which can provide broadband access using mobile devices, has been tied up by discussion about how to allocate the bands. To whom should the bands go: to wireless service providers for WiMAX or to mobile operators for 4G LTE services? Mobile broadcasting regulations The Indian regulator, TRAI, in early 2008, recommended providing mobile TV services within a “technology neutral framework”. Their recommendations envisioned auctioning the spectrum for mobile TV services in the UHF band and a separate licence, independent of DTH (direct to home – satellite) or cable TV licenses for mobile TV services – an onerous condition for incumbent operators. Nevertheless, the ministry has not yet officially announced the mobile TV licensing framework, most of the spectrum is still vacant, and millions across the country have been deprived of these services and the social changes and economic gains they would bring. Similarly, TRAI’s 2005 recommendations regarding a digital terrestrial broadcasting policy framework remain unspecified until now. New services and revenues The lack of the long pending licensing frameworks for all the major resources – 3G, mobile WiMAX, mobile TV (UHF) and satellite multimedia broadcasting, among others – is hurting two of India’s greatest strengths: content and media. India has over 350 TV channels for which it produces movies and other content in a wide variety of languages. It also has one of the world’s largest animation and gaming industries. Indian companies now produce content for major Hollywood studios and production houses. When the spectrum is finally licensed, the revenues generated by companies serving the sector, the new sources of information, social networking, instant messaging and allied services will have major social and economic impacts. The financial gains will not go to operators alone, but to a host of companies and individuals providing mobile content production or repurposing, gaming, animation, middleware, application software, the handset industry and a great many other services and products. In fact, an entire economic ecosystem will be created around each major service environment such as mobile multimedia broadcasting. Broadcaster gains Broadcasters deliver content to subscribers via a variety of media such as DTH, cable TV, IPTV and video on demand. In most cases, the same equipment can deliver content to several types of delivery channels. However, TRAI’s proposal calling for separate licences for each delivery mechanism is difficult, inefficient and costly for operators. To deliver the same content via DTH, cable, IPTV and mobile an operator must have separate licences and separate headend transmission facilities for each. It would be much more efficient to use a common headend to transmit the content for whatever service licences the operator can acquire through transparent open auctions. The regulatory framework compartmentalises services excessively. DTH, for example, can only be unidirectional, and no value-added services, broadband, terrestrial repeaters and content that does not have an uplink or downlink licence are permitted. This excludes most of the content available on the Internet or IPTV systems. The restrictions on other modes of delivery such as cable TV are similar, though the regulations are being reviewed. Planning the future The growing demand for mobile multimedia content is a clear indicator of mobile networking’s future. Video calls, streaming video and multimedia instant messages increase data transmission requirements tenfold compared to voice or music. Web 2.0 services, community services and peer-to-peer networks that exchange rich multimedia information call for mobile networks that interface seamlessly with the Internet. India’s regulatory, licensing and spectrum allocation procedures were established for services with lifetimes of 30 years or more and are no longer appropriate in an age of rapidly changing technology. In the USA, the FCC considering ways to break the deadlock by changing the rules and reallocating unused chunks of spectrum. Many countries face the need to reallocate unused or inefficiently used spectrum to meet rapidly changing needs. There is a worldwide need to recast the regulatory, licensing and spectrum allocation process so they can enable new services.