Development 18 December 2014

Diversity the Key to Connecting the Last Mile

By Noelle Francesca De GuzmanDirector, Policy and External Engagement

Building upon the progress from its third edition last year, the 4th Wireless and Open Spectrum Summit, held in conjunction with the 14th Manthan Awards in Delhi, India, brought experts and practitioners from the telecommunications, government, foundation and research fields together to collaborate on solutions for bringing Internet connectivity to India’s offline and underserved populations.

The Internet community in India is all abuzz this year with the announcement of a comprehensive strategy on Digital India, which has been identified as a priority area by the new Prime Minister. Backed by a $17-billion budget, the programme aims to create the necessary infrastructure, service delivery platforms and human capacity to turn the country into an online powerhouse. Amidst the flurry of big ticket projects, however, participants at the Summit lamented what they perceived as an failure to address to the challenges faced in connecting the last mile.

Among the group’s recommendations is the cultivation of rural ISPs, which along with aggregate online services can not only provide affordable broadband access to far-flung villages, but also energise small-scale entrepreneurship in marginalised communities. Indeed, attendees concurred that liberalising the last mile market is key to both optimising the use of existing, and at times underutilised infrastructure, and to filling in coverage gaps left by commercial providers.

Such possibilities are, however, constrained by a number of barriers. One of them is the arduous and expensive licensing procedure for ISPs, in part due to various permits which need to be secured from different state agencies. Restrictive regulations, which currently mandate that those without class A, B or C ISP licenses cannot sell bandwidth without becoming a franchisee, impose additional burdens not only to small aspiring ISPs but to organisations who want to pilot new broadband technologies which could better serve the marginalised.

But even with an open ISP market in place, one fundamental question remains: Who should shoulder the costs of last mile network rollout? Summit participants agree that this requires mutual support and coordination between the government and the private sector. Operators attending the roundtable suggested, for instance, lowering telecom firms’ universal service obligation fees—currently at 5% of their revenues—by one or two percent in exchange for them deploying the necessary infrastructure in areas that are not commercially viable. Another is to tweak the existing spectrum auction guidelines, shifting the focus away from profit maximization towards cost considerations for operators, as the high price paid for spectrum may be contributing to the lag in network investment. Civil society representatives, for their part, encouraged a more user-oriented public policy to drive the allocation of scarce resources.

Participants appealed to the both government and the private sector to consider gains above and beyond direct revenue, pointing to the positive economic impact of broadband access particularly for disadvantaged sectors of society. Projects like Wireless for Communities have enabled disenfranchised women to set up independent e-commerce businesses, like, along with other social enterprises owned and managed by local people in their own communities.  

Overall, attendees concurred that bringing a diversity of smaller players into the fold, from ISPs to community-based digital service providers, can only do the industry good, enabling the development not only of different business models and approaches to last mile connectivity. By doing so, not only will all players be able to benefit, but more importantly, we can get closer to creating a more inclusive, and truly global, Internet. 

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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