Ram Sewak Sharma: “A countrywide public Wi-Fi grid can be transformational”

“A countrywide public Wi-Fi grid can be transformational”

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has been instrumental in aligning the interests of the industry with those of the government. It has actively engaged all the stakeholders through consultation processes on various issues concerning the sector. In a recent interaction, Ram Sewak Sharma talked about TRAI’s key achievements over the past year, quality of service (QoS) issues, net neutrality, the outlook for spectrum auctions, and the major announcements expected to be made in the next few months. Excerpts…

What have been TRAIs key achievements in the past year, in terms of resolving the sector’s regulatory challenges?

TRAI has three broad mandates: one, to provide recommendations to the government at its request; two, to provide sou moto recommendations for the sector; and three, to regulate QoS.

With regard to the first mandate, we have made our recommendations to the government in a timely manner whenever it has desired. We have also issued a number of sou moto recommendations in the past year. For instance, we gave our suggestions on how the implementation of BharatNet can be improved through public-private partnership (PPP). We also came out with suggestions on how digital cable TV infrastructure can be used to provide broadband. There are a number of things that are being done with a view to ensuring that the government’s Digital India vision is realised. On the QoS front, we are mandated to ensure consumer protection and have done so through various regulations related to call drops. All in all, we are trying to discharge our duties as per these mandates.

What is your view on the Supreme Court’s decision on the compensation mechanism for call drops? What will be TRAI’s next move in this regard and to ensure good QoS?

TRAI is mandated to ensure consumer protection. After the Supreme Court’s order, we have been exploring other possible steps that can be taken to fulfil the mandate. We have requested the government to make provisions in the relevant acts so that we are able to effectively discharge that mandate.

With the next round of spectrum auctions almost around the corner, what are the outstanding issues that need to be resolved?

We have already given our recommendations on the reserve price of spectrum in various bands. Recently, there was a communication from the government regarding the spectrum usage charge (SUC). We have given our recommendations on that as well.

On SUC, we had originally recommended a flat levy as the SUC payability was based on the premise that the income streams generated from various spectrum bands could be segregated. However, in cases where segregation does not hold, computing the charges becomes difficult. In that case, some proxies will have to be used to determine the charge. We have already submitted our recommendations on the weighted average formula for calculating the SUC. The Telecom Commission and the government are free to take the final decision. It is our job to propose and recommend, and the government’s job to dispose.

What is the industry’s spectrum requirement at present?

According to the industry, the inadequacy of spectrum is a basic problem and one of the major reasons for the deteriorating QoS. Therefore, we have decided to make the entire spectrum available. I hope that with the next round of spectrum auctions and the industry’s participation in it, there will be fewer problems related to spectrum availability and QoS.

What is the regulator’s position on net neutrality?

The net neutrality issue has been addressed from the tariff perspective in our February 2016 regulation on discriminatory pricing. To address the remaining issues, we have issued a pre-consultation paper, which will more or less be converted into a consultation paper on the basis of the feedback we receive. We plan to issue the final consultation paper in August 2016.

What are the issues that the consultation paper is expected to resolve?

Some of the issues will emerge from the pre-consultation process. We have first released a pre-consultation paper listing the issues that we feel are relevant. Industry stakeholders will provide their inputs, which will be included in the final consultation paper. We have added this new stage of pre-consultation only because we did not want to leave out any important issues.

Net neutrality is an extremely important matter, but it is not really for the regulator to regulate. It is actually a policy decision that needs to be taken by the government. The idea is to have a consultation paper, on the basis of which we will issue some recommendations to the government. These recommendations will be used by the government for formulating the policy guidelines.

What are the three most important regulatory issues that need to be resolved?

One is certainly QoS. The second is the net neutrality issue. The third is having adequate digital or connectivity infrastructure, which is not a regulatory issue as such but is relevant to the country as a whole, because ubiquitous connectivity is the first pillar of Digital India.

What has been the progress in the BharatNet project so far and how can TRAI help in this growth?

TRAI has issued a formal recommendation to the government on following the PPP route to improve the implementation of the programme. Our key recommendation is that the project should be implemented in PPP mode, whereby private entities should be entrusted with the job of building the network, and marketing and utilising it to provide services and generate revenues so that there is an alignment of interest between the private partner and the government. This will also help reduce the government’s investment in the project as private parties will also put in some money.

What new announcements can we expect from TRAI in the coming months?

We have recently issued a consultation paper on the proliferation of broadband through the public Wi-Fi network. We want to study how broadband can be taken to the masses using the country’s fixed telecom infrastructure. There are only 20 million landline connections in the country, while the dependence on wireless connectivity is rising.

We want to see how free unlicensed spectrum can be used to provide good and affordable connectivity to everyone. TRAI has talked about creating a Wi-Fi grid across the country. Having a countrywide public Wi-Fi grid can be transformational. Currently, accessing broadband using a public Wi-Fi hotspot requires users to establish their identity through a one-time password. If users move from one hotspot to another, they have to go through the same process all over again. We want to create a grid of Wi-Fi hotspots whereby users have their identity authenticated only once and not have to go through the same procedure again and again.

Another issue with public Wi-Fi is payments. Currently, these services are free, but we are looking at payment instruments on the cloud. While there are challenges in achieving this, we are certainly striving towards it. We need to put in place the right ecosystem. The consultation process is under way and is expected to be completed soon. Following this, we will issue our recommendations on the matter.

The other key recommendation that we will be making is on net neutrality, which is a major issue facing the sector.