India’s top phone companies have sought intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha to stop the government from delicensing valuable spectrum in the E & V bands, saying such a move would hurt licensed carriers, rob the central exchequer of sizeable revenue, compromise national security and only benefit a clutch of foreign internet companies who would unfairly enjoy free access to these airwaves and be able to offer low-cost public WiFi services.
The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) -- which represents telco biggies Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, Idea Cellular and Reliance Jio Infocomm -- in separate but identical letters to the PMO and telecom minister have suggested that the government “should not delicense but auction the airwaves in the E & V bands” that can be used as backhaul to connect mobiles where fibre is not available and eventually for 5G services as well.
The latest round of letters appears part of a coordinated attempt by licenced telcos and internet service providers (ISPs) to build pressure in the highest offices of government to thwart unlicensed entities from entering the public WiFi-based internet services space and accessing compatible spectrum for free.
Last week, the COAI and Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) had urged the PMO to reject the telecom regulator’s suggestion to allow unlicensed players to establish affordable WiFi-based internet networks in public places, saying such a move would be illegal and beyond the scope of the Trai Act.
“It is learnt that proliferation of rural broadband is being propagated as the justification for delicensing spectrum in the E&V bands by a small section of stakeholders, primarily foreign internet companies,” said COAI director general Rajan Mathews in identical letters, dated July 7, to Nripendra Misra, principal secretary to the PMO, and Telecom Minister Sinha. ET has reviewed copies these letters.
“These justifications,” he said, “are completely baseless because in the villages/rural areas, even the present delicensed spectrum in the 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz band is completely unused, and accordingly no additional spectrum is required in those areas”.
COAI’s Mathews, however, has not named the foreign internet companies cited in the letters.
The Modi government’s plans to give public WiFi a big push ahead of next year’s general election has reportedly sparked off interest among global giants such as Google and Facebook — which already offer WiFi services in India — and telcos alike.
In its latest letters to the PMO and telecom minister, the COAI has made a strong case “for assignment of E and V band airwaves, typically in the 80 GHz and 60 GHz bands, to licensed telecom access service providers (ASPs),” amid the huge demand for these airwaves for backhaul capacity.
“Airwaves in the E and V bands are increasingly being adopted by operators globally to cost-effectively meet mobile broadband backhaul requirements, which is why, it’s high time ASPs have some alternative resource available to deliver high-capacity backhaul requirements and offer best quality customer experience,” COAI said in its letters.
Backhaul has to do with connecting the core of a telecom network to nodes and then onto towers, to transmit data. In locations where carriers cannot lay fibre – which typically requires manpower for laying and maintaining, national and local level permissions besides huge investments – the E and V bands can be used, which is also more cost-efficient than fibre.
According to COAI, any proposal to delicense E and V band spectrum “would cause interference in these bands and render it practically infeasible to use these airwaves for backhaul”.
The COAI also said “since the government had decided in year 2012, post orders of the Supreme Court, to assign access spectrum only through auction, in case the Centre (now) intends to allocate part of the V band for access services, it is imperative that it be assigned through auction”.