The fresh set of recommendations on National Broadband Plan from Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has triggered a debate whether the new broadband targets are achievable or not. Many experts have said the targets are over ambitious and unrealistic.
I think it’s time not to take a stand either for or against in this debate and instead ask ourselves one simple question: do we as a country of 1.1 billion plus people need 160 million, or even 200 million, broadband subscribers by 2014 or not? I’m sure a few, if any, would beg to differ.
Who would have said, circa 2000, that India needs 700 million telecom subscribers in another 10 years timeframe? Today, that’s where we are in terms of telecom subscriber base, with 723.3 million telecom subscribers in September 2010, according to TRAI. And the role played by affordable mass access to communication and connectivity in the country’s overall economic development is there for everyone to see. The mobile phone has transformed from being a gadget for the elite to a vehicle for the empowerment and development of the people.
Who would have thought a decade ago that India would surprise even the most optimistic estimates on the mobile subscriptions front? However, it is important to understand–and acknowledge–what has led to this laudable growth. Only then we can have a similar success story in the area of broadband too.
While the national telecom policies of 1994 and 1999 provided the necessary blueprints for developing the telecom market in the country, the market forces and the regulation have played an equally important role. The most important driving forces, however, have been two: one, the strong latent demand for voice-based communication and two, the marketers’ ability to keep lowering the entry barrier for subscribers to come into the fold of mobility, from higher to lower layers of the socioeconomic pyramid. Voice has remained the killer mass application to fuel the growth of mobile services.
Once again, it is pertinent to identify the killer application that would provide the necessary impetus for the adoption and growth of broadband.
Let’s begin with revisiting the three constituents of ‘triple play’ that formed the premise for broadband. As we know, these are voice, data and video.
So far, to a large extent, data has been seen as the key driver for the growth of broadband. But it’s time now to realise that data is not, and cannot in the near few years, become a mass broadband application; it is still a forte of the savvy.
As far as pure-play voice is concerned, while it is a mass application, it doesn’t require a broadband channel. So that narrows our focus to video, but then the television is already there to address the mass requirements of pure-play video.
In other words, none of the three plays–voice, data or video–show the promise of becoming a mass application when it comes to spurring the growth of broadband. And if that remains the case, no matter what our broadband plan or policy is, wide-scale broadband adoption attempts will fail time and again, like they have in the past.
In the search of a killer broadband application, numerous value-added services have been explored, but very few of these services are directed at adding value to voice–the truly successful mass ICT application so far.
Tremendous value can be added to consumer voice by combining it with video, i.e. by directing services like video calling and video conferencing at consumers, rather than limiting these for the consumption of businesses only. Only such initiatives can mark the beginning of a broadband action plan, and put an end to debates. All stakeholders will need to work together to make this happen.
(As published in Deccan Chronicle, December 16, 2010. Header changed.)

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