Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Year after the Government unveiled an ambitious policy to promote broadband use, the Ministry of Communications is discovering the depressing reality that not all subscribers are ready to make the transition from dial-up Internet. Costs have dropped by nearly 75 per cent in the 12 months ended September, but the tariff reduction for 256 kilobits per second connections is rendered unattractive by restrictions on usage patterns or downloads. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that only about 600,000 subscribers among over 5 million Internet users have opted for broadband. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which envisaged a liberal policy framework for broadband, has rightly called for concerted efforts by service providers to achieve the original goal of 1.5 million connections each in the private and public sectors by December. Given the relatively slow pace of growth, it would seem the opportunity to create a competitive and subscriber-friendly regime was lost simply because the Government was disinclined to share the BSNL and MTNL telephone networks with the private sector for service provision.
International experience indicates that a mix of entertainment and social benefits has fuelled expansion of broadband, where subscribers generally have unlimited access to upload and download content. Music, entertainment and multimedia information, e-governance, health and telemedicine, social connectedness, and the availability of information have all actively promoted its use. New multimedia content such as podcasts (audio programmes of a specified format which can be located by search and book-marked) that inform and educate, is adding to the popularity of high bandwidth connections; some universities in the United States have begun to post podcasts of lectures delivered in classrooms online for downloading by students. Sadly, in the Indian context broadband has not made the major strides thought possible only a year ago, in the absence of a wider base of users and active promotion of content creation in areas such as education, agriculture, health care, and e-governance. It is unlikely this situation will change dramatically if the "rationing" mindset that limits data downloads is not replaced by a more progressive outlook; the Confederation of Indian Industry had, in its submission to policymakers, envisaged affordable access of 1.5 megabit speed and unlimited downloads for home users to boost broadband penetration. Besides lifting of data download restrictions, initiatives to provide free wireless Internet in educational institutions, public libraries, and government offices may be necessary for wider and more equitable access. There is some evidence available from the Pew Internet Project in the U.S. to show that adoption of broadband may have slowed (there was only a three per cent increase in 2005 over the previous year) because a significant number of the remaining dial-up subscribers have low purchasing power. Clearly, policy intervention holds the key.