Robindhra Mangtani, Director, GSMA shares the prospects of Mobile Broadband in India in an interaction with TelecomTiger.
Q1) From an operator’s perspective, how strong is the business case for mobile broadband in India?
Ans: There are two answers to this. It depends on how strong the social policy objectives are in terms of bridging the digital divide. We see a strong role for the government of India in terms of its objectives in bridging the digital divide, e-learning, education and e-governance and so on and broadband rides on the back of that. We believe that broadband is a utility and certainly the case is demonstrated in every other country of the world. People cannot manage without it once they get it. The need for broadband maybe to access passport status, carry day-to-day transactions, education, telemedicine and so on.
The second part is that there is a latent demand for broadband in India. Truly the fixed line infrastructure can never deliver broadband in India. We have had some consultancy reports to tell us that maximum fixed number infrastructure can deliver is nine million broadband connections. Whereas the potential we believe in India by 2014 as witnessed by consultant reports was 100 million subscribers. And the reason why we say that and believe its correct is because we have evidences from other countries which bear all. Sri Lanka for instance, although a much smaller country has 160, 000 subscribers to 3G broadband in two years. And Australia, which is a very large rural area, has 7 million connections in two years. So, there is a huge potential. Mobile broadband has just started.
Q2) Apart from conventional data services, what are the kinds of applications possible over mobile broadband environment?
Ans: Well I think it all is limited by your imagination. I have been talking a lot about software as service. Mobile network today offers software as a service (SaaS). The applications that you get on your handset are living in the network somewhere and are delivered on to the mobile network infrastructure
So any application that’s available on the web today can be mobile-enabled. If you use gmail, hotmail today there is a software applications, there are certain applications for the mobile broadband crowd as well. Globally, iPhone alone has witnessed one billion downloads from App Store in less than 18 months.
India is a huge IT industry and obviously one of the leaders in outsource billing, operations and portals for companies worldwide. The government can provide mobile broadband right down to the village panchayat level and to the council level and deliver applications over the network.
Q3) Do you feel the current guidelines and the kind of spectrum available in India make a strong case for mobile broadband in India. Do you feel there is more scope for government support on the initiative?
Ans: We are waiting for the government of India to auction regions. We are just hungry for that. We see there is demand and we conceive that government’s objectives to bridge the digital divide require broadband.
We believe that starting the process in terms of the 3G auction is critical and then expansion plans straight after is also a key.
And the reason to say that is 3G provides a massive expansion based on voice and its capabilities, which takes the pressure off the existing 2G network, which is already suffering a capacity crunch in its voice service. So the first phase if you like is taking off the weight from 2G network and moving on to 3G network. And the second phase if I may say is that we have got this extra capacity. Till then it’s good to make sure you are capturing that demand and making sure you give them this experience.
We don’t see evidence yet that the government is thinking along those lines but see that the government wants to do is 3G auction and that’s the time immediately for doing that.
Q4) When it comes to rural subscribers, the uptake of services like mobile broadband is marred by the fact that the price of terminals to access such services do not fit pocket. How should one overcome such challenge?
Ans: With regards to individual person, it’s a tough thing to say because we don’t really know what the prices are really going to be. Lets be honest, there is no service out there today available in the community. I don’t yet know what the prices are going to be. I have a fair idea that the ARPU rate in India is low as compared to other countries. So the idea that rural villagers can spend much more on broadband may not be the case. We have a fair idea about what happened.
When we come back to social policy objectives, it is to bring broadband to everybody and make universal service applications and universal service funds. So you could think of mechanisms to provide incentives to rural broadband for a price tag which is competitive and meets their requirements.
Secondly, if your objective is to provide telecentre for instance then of course the pricing for them is elastic in terms of the amount of demands and the services you want to give to the area. So, we are not coming here and saying its at a certain price but what we are saying is that you have mechanisms already, not only social mechanisms but also have the universal service fund.
The pricing has to match the expectations of the people considered in the service. I cannot come and say that you have to take the service in the price that I determine, making it the recipe for disaster.
Q5) What are the GSMA’s planned initiatives related to mobile broadband in India?
Ans: I think the main one is to fill the government social policy objectives and report their initiatives in telemedicine and e-learning and e-governance. These are the key objectives. And we also want to share is our experience in working where broadband becomes a requisite.
So that’s one thing which could give machine to machine communications and the other thing is that we have based our service is software living in a network enabled by broadband connection. So that you can have that service any way.
Other key point that we want to bring is our experience in mobile banking which has a huge potential to bank the unbanked and to bring it to former mechanisms of banking rather than the unofficial ones that exist today. Our goal is to bring reliable and consistent and other more user friendly banking to people who don’t have bank accounts. I want to use mobile broadband to facilitate that.
Q6) Please share some experiences and observations related to mobile broadband services on the global scale?
Ans: Mobile broadband is used in the same way as fixed broadband is used. It is supporting small business, it is providing e-governance, enabling telemedicine services, enabling banking services. Its hard to limit it. It does exactly the same as the fixed network broadband service. But the beauty of it is its mobility. Instead of having that we have a device, a 3G enabled data device, for instance a BlackBerry which give email to readers and how it works on 3G roadband-enabled network. But it also works on the existing 2G networks. So it has got both 2G area and the 3G area. You have got rural areas working on 3G. You want to make applications that are connected to the nearest ATM, and not only work on the 3G area but also on the 2G area. There is no limit to the fact that once we have broadband everywhere, we do exactly the same thing on the fixed line that you do on the mobile.
Q7) Mobile broadband is positioned to be on the backbone of GSM network. WiMAX players cry foul that it is not justified since even they are able offer similar services. Your take on the debate.
Ans: There is not really a take to have. I just want to say that we believe that we have a compelling proposition and that proposition is that we have wireless broadband that starts at 3G, moves to HSPA and then to LTE evolving to an increased high-speed environment.
With GSM as a platform for mobile broadband, we can roam anywhere in the country and still get connectivity. The other thing that we have got is with such a big community of ecosystem, where we have over 1,4,00 devices on 3G and HSPA from 110 manufacturers; no other system matches that capability. WiMAX doesn’t have the vendor community to support that number of devices or speeds or the backwards compatibility. Once you enter WiMAX area, you access broadband but once you leave that area, you get nothing. That’s the difference.