In a relatively little noted development, the number of monthly subscriber additions exceeded the 22-million mark for two months in a row, as per numbers reported by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) for the months of December and November 2010.

India’s wireless growth story seems to border on defying the common logic that as a base gets larger, growth slows down. As against a monthly subscriber growth of 2.8 per cent in October 2010, the growth in November stood at 2.7 per cent, while in December it came down to 2.6 per cent. In other words, the deceleration was negligible at just 0.1 per cent month on month.

In terms of absolute numbers, this actually looks better. From 18.98 million subscriber additions in October, it jumped to 22.88 million additions in November. In contrast, broadband subscription inched from 10.71 million in November to 10.92 million in December.

As of December 2010, there were 752.19 million wireless subscriptions, according to TRAI. It would be interesting to know how many of these subscriptions are now for 3G, with many of the major service providers having rolled out their services, at least in select circles.

Even though quite ubiquitous now in comparison with the wireline network, wireless in its 2G avatar is, at best, a narrowband network. It is 3G that kicks in the delivery of wireless broadband. It’s another matter that BWA promises to make it relatively cheaper and likely, much faster…

It is the legacy limitations of the wireline that prompted stakeholders and policy makers to turn to wireless. As the broadband divide between the haves and have-nots continues, the torch bearers of digital democracy looked at wireless with hope, just as they did one-and-a-half decade ago…

The past efforts to achieve wide-scale access objectives through the wireline have failed miserably. In fact, wireline telephony has been a shrinking market for past several years now. At the end of December 2010, there were 35.09 million wireline telephony subscribers compared to 36.96 million in March 2010. And there were 37.96 million wireline subscribers in March 2009 and 39.42 million in March 08, as per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) data.

The continued fall in wireline telephony has made it difficult for players to leverage the platform for broadband growth from a near-term perspective. This assumes greater concern in view of the fact that a large majority of wireline broadband subscribers use digital subscriber line (DSL) for access technology over copper-telephony networks. Further, the potential for growing wireline broadband by using other wireline technologies like the cable modem is also not very strong, as cable modem penetration has historically been very low in India. Unlike in the US and some other countries, in India the cable operators have never been a dominant lot. And anyways, the advent and quick rise of DTH services doesn’t bode well for the growth of cable as a robust access network.

That 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.

While the consensus to use wireless as a mainstream vehicle for broadband has been around and growing, a recent dilemma has been pertaining to the choice between 3G and BWA technologies.

LTE rollouts are gaining momentum in some parts of the world, and India too has an opportunity to take the bus sooner than later. Wireless broadband is still in infancy in India and will need muscles of Mbps for growth.

The current 3G offerings in India talk of peak downlink rates of the order of 21 Mbps, while actual rates would be much lower. On the other hand, BWA options like Long Term Evolution (LTE) are mandated, by specifications, to provide rates of 100 Mbps and above.

How about LTE serving as a backhaul for consumer 3G?
(As published in Deccan Chronicle, March 3, 2011, header changed.)

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