It’s important that e-Governance stakeholders are technology-agnostic when it comes to reaching out to the citizen

As the broadband divide between the haves and have-nots continues, the torch bearers of digital democracy look at wireless with hope, just as they did one-and-a-half decade ago…

Wireless, which was in second generation then, did not let the hopefuls down. As is acknowledged now, wireless has given tele-density a boost to the extent of causing a telecom revolution.

There is reason, to hope again, that a third-generation wireless will spawn a broadband revolution.

What does that mean for e-Governance? Well, a lot.

It’s all in the network
The success and efficiency of an e-Governance project depends critically on the quality and extent of the network and its availability.

The network needs to be robust and available at various levels—metros, state capitals, district HQs, sub-districts and finally the villages.

While the fibre backbones are there in place to take care of connectivity up till the district HQ level to an extent, there is insufficient connectivity at sub-district and village levels.

For e-Governance to be effective, it must be able to bridge this divide and reach out to centres in the semi-urban and rural India.

Moreover, while the intra-government connectivity issues may get taken care of, a bigger challenge is to address the more important objective of e-Governance—availability of e-Governance content and services to the end-users—the citizens.

How about the wireline?

The past efforts to achieve connectivity objectives through the wireline have failed miserably. In fact, wireline has been a shrinking market for past several years now. At the end of March 2010, there were 36.96 million wireline telephony subscribers in the country, compared to 37.96 million in March 2009 and 39.42 million in March 08, as per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) data.

More than 85 percent of wireline broadband subscribers use digital subscriber line (DSL) for access technology over copper-telephony networks, which as we saw, has been a shrinking thing. The use of other wireline technologies like the cable modem has always been very low, at around 8 percent.

Unlike in the US and some other countries, in India cable operators have never been a dominant lot. Further, the advent and quick rise of DTH services doesn’t bode well for the growth of cable as a robust access network.

This makes the wireline medium look less attractive when it comes to growing the Internet and broadband penetration in the country, at least for the next few years.

No wonder then, broadband targets have been set and reset in the past, but could not be achieved despite much hoopla and hype.

Enter 3G and BWA
The continued failure of the wireline has prompted the stakeholders and policy makers to turn to wireless, with hope.

However, even though quite ubiquitous in comparison with the wireline network, wireless in its 2G avatar is, at best, a narrowband network.

It is 3G that brings wideband aka broadband to the wireless. And BWA brings relatively cheaper and faster broadband to the wireless.

And that means a lot for e-Governance.

3G versus BWA
With both 3G and BWA auctions over, much of the earlier haze surrounding the rollouts of these networks is gone (and of course, BSNL and MTNL have already rolled out these networks partly.)

While 3G can be used for both voice and data, only 5MHz of spectrum is available per operator. Moreover, no operator has got a pan-India 3G license, except for the BSNL-MTNL combine.

In practice, 3G subscribers will find it seamless to avail e-Governance services over mobile devices, which more likely will be smart phones and tablets, given their native data-cum-voice support abilities.

This, however, brings in an urban skew, given the higher cost and complexity of handsets. In other words, it increases the likelihood that usage of 3G for e-Governance services will be relatively less among the masses.

BWA, especially the WiMAX option, has got the advantages of cost as well as spectrum on its side. Moreover, apart from BSNL-MTNL, which gets BWA spectrum by default, there will be another pan-India operator, Reliance-owned Infotel Broadband.

The big advantage with BWA, certainly, is the width of the spectrum, which at 20MHz, is a jaw-dropping four times the 5MHz 3G spectrum.

A flip side is that BWA-ready devices are not commonplace yet. Moreover, BWA is positioned primarily as a data network, though there are no discrete regulatory restrictions of using it for voice also. Again, even if the network is used both for data and voice, slow availability of smart phones and tablet devices will limit its adoption to larger form-factor devices like desktops and notebooks. So initially, BWA services will leverage USB modems.

The middle path
3G networks will be around, quicker than BWA networks, and that makes 3G a primary vehicle for government-to-citizen services. In fact, the BSNL-MTNL 3G connectivity is already there in parts of the country.

As such, 3G has the potential to give e-Governance an early critical citizen mass, which will further accelerate a wider-scale adoption of e-Governance services in the country. As such, it will be important for stakeholders and agencies to incorporate 3G in their citizen service plans.

What is even more important is that stakeholders are operator- and network-agnostic as a matter of policy and planning. Involving both public- and private-sector operators will be further advantageous.

These measures will lead to speedier and sustainable rollouts of e-Governance projects and services, mostly Web-based.

While 3G can give government-to-citizen services a jumpstart, BWA capacities can help run higher-bandwidth applications, serving more subscribers at a time. Together, these networks will help build robust last-mile parts of e-Governance networks.

3G will bring in wireless broadband, LTE will cater to ultra-speed needs and WiMAX can add cost advantages—e-Gov needs can have room for all

(As published in e-Gov, July 2010 issue.)

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