India’s whitespace allocation opens up possibilities

14 MAR 2016

The Indian government has allocated spectrum to eight organisations for testing TV whitespace technology, opening up opportunities for use of unlicensed spectrum in the country without the need for auctions.

H Nwana, executive director of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA), told Mobile World Live he welcomed the decision for carrying out experiments using TV whitespace-like rules, following similar efforts in markets such as Singapore, Philippines, UK, US and Canada.

The government last week issued eight licences in the 470-582MHz band to ERNET (an autonomous body under the Telecom Ministry), power equipment maker BHEL, IIT Bombay, IIT Delhi, IIT Hyderabad, IIIT Bangalore, Tata Advanced Systems and Amrawati, Economic Times said.

Allocating the so-called whitespace spectrum for testing appears to challenge the widely-held view in India that all airwaves, except for defence and security purposes, must be auctioned.

Good spectrum policy
Nwana concluded that the government’s decision shows that “the all-spectrum-must-be-auctioned view is not only limiting, but also wrong. Why else would the government issue these test licences for the 470-585MHz band? This is good from a good spectrum policy perspective”.

The Supreme Court of India, he explained, has found in the past that auctions are not the only permissible method for disposing of natural resources, such as spectrum. “For example, spectrum, such as the TV whitespaces or 5GHz spectrum, could be allocated on a license-exempt or unlicensed basis as long at such the policy decision is ‘backed by a social or welfare purpose’.”

In the absence of such a “social or welfare purpose”, the high court has held that auctions are the preferred approach.

Nwana, who previously served as director of UK spectrum policy at Ofcom, said that in India nearly 100MHz of the available spectrum in the 470-585MHz band has been lying unutilised, even for analogue TV transmission.

He noted that apart from broadcasting, service allocation is possible for fixed and mobile as “primary services” since India is part of ITU Region 3, which allows the 470-585MHz band to be used for all three services.

“Sharing of spectrum must be encouraged among these competing possible primary services in the 470-585MHz band in India,” he said. “From a rational spectrum policy perspective, this move by the government makes complete sense. Furthermore, this band would be key to bridging the digital divide in India, a country with more than 800 million people not connected to the internet and with 68 per cent living in rural areas.”

Microsoft is waiting
Last year Microsoft expressed interest in using the highly-efficient, unlicensed TV whitespace to bring low-cost broadband internet access to 500,000 Indian villages. The technology, which works like Wi-Fi on a larger scale, would be inexpensive, bringing down the required capex investments, and is well-suited for remote areas.

Microsoft, which has requested the whitespace spectrum be made available for free to make it cost-effective to roll out on a large scale, has been testing the technology in pilots in Andhra Pradesh and Varanasi. The company said it has no intention of becoming a telecoms provider and will work with local firms to offer last-mile connectivity in remote areas that are currently under-served.

The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) sent complaints to Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Telecom Secretary Rakesh Garg and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India chairman RS Sharma calling for the spectrum to be auctioned, instead of allocating it to one company.

The operators contend that they aren’t against the technology or Microsoft’s entering the space, but are opposed to the US firm being allocated free or exclusive access to the spectrum.

Minister Prasad said in January that “spectrum will only be provided through auction”, but a committee has been set up to evaluate the feasibility of using whitespace technology to connect rural areas and draft a policy.

The DSA, which pushes for for laws and regulations that lead to more efficient and effective spectrum use, has long argued that that auctions should be held for high-demand spectrum. If demand exceeds supply, then there should be an auction process, but If supply exceeds demand, then you don’t need auction, Nwana said. “That is why a lot of countries have beauty contests.”

Looking at whitespace developments across Asia Pacific, he said he “hasn’t been so excited for a while. We met with OFCA in Hong Kong and have made good progress in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. We’re working on educating [regulators] on TV whitespace rules. We’re seeing clear action across the world”.

Digital switchover
The main point of the digital switchover, which many countries are going through right now, Nwana insisted, must be to create a significant content industry.

“It can’t just be to switch off analogue signals and switch on digital signals. I agree with the broadcasters in India that they should be given a chance to create a new content ecosystem that exploits the significant content that Bollywood is already producing.”

Wouldn’t it be fantastic, he said, if most of the content created in Bollywood went to terrestrial television in India, which would definitely help drive up advertising revenue in the country.

“One of the key reasons for having digital TV In the UK was that fact that it generated a significant TV advertising ecosystem, which is still persisting today,” he said.

That same economic logic would work in India if given a chance, he said. “The question is ‘do the politicians and regulators in India the see the opportunity in that vision?’”


Joseph Waring

Joseph Waring joins Mobile World Live as the Asia editor for its new Asia channel. Before joining the GSMA, Joseph was group editor for Telecom Asia for more than ten years. In addition to writing features, news and blogs, he...

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