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Minister of State for Communications and IT Shakeel Ahmed informed the monsoon session of Parliament that the government proposes to evolve a new telecom policy that intends to encompass various aspects of the telecom sector.

india Updated: Apr 01, 2006 02:30 IST

Minister of State for Communications and IT Shakeel Ahmed informed the monsoon session of Parliament that the government proposes to evolve a new telecom policy that intends to encompass various aspects of the telecom sector. If the statement indicates the thinking of the government in regard to issues that the new policy should address, there are major areas which have been left out.

Ahmed does not make any mention of the non-availability of basic telecom services in rural areas and the need to bridge the telecom divide. To reduce the gap between the teledensities of urban and rural areas, one of the main thrust areas of the earlier national telecom policy was a ten-fold increase in rural teledensity from 0.4 per cent to 4 per cent. The teledensity in rural areas has not reached even half of the targeted figure. It stagnates at 1.7 per cent against the national average of 9.6. Some metropolitan centres like Delhi and Mumbai have a teledensity of 30, which has been achieved due to technological revolutions in the field of mobile telephony and wireless communications. However, the fruits of these technological revolutions have not reached the rural and remote areas of the country.

At present, the cellular networks are mostly confined to metro areas. According to the figures released by the Ministry of Communications recently, while mobile phones registered a dramatic growth of 76.52 lakh during April-July 2005, basic phones recorded a negative growth rate. This should cause concern to the policy-makers. Mobile phones now account for 56.46 per cent of the total phone connections of the country, almost entirely concentrated in the urban areas. The teledensity figures are skewed and do not give any idea of the spread of telecom facilities in the rural areas where they are required most for empowering people living there.

The Department of Telecom is adding the number of mobile phones to household phones (fixed) to claim that the teledensity target of 7 per cent by 2005 has been achieved. This is giving a false picture. A better indicator of the spread of telecom facilities would be household penetration by basic telephone service. In developing countries, teledensity figures exclude mobile phones, as they are personal rather than community or household phones. Basic telephony, which means the provision of a fixed household phone, by employing either wire line or wireless technology, should be the primary concern of policy-makers and regulators. Premium services like mobile telephony should be left to market forces.

One of the major policy initiatives of the DoT in the early Nineties was the provision of at least one Village Public Telephone (VPT) in all the 607,491 villages in the country by 1999. Even in 2005, there were about 64,000 villages that did not have even a public phone.

The recent telecom revolution mainly brought about by the digital technologies has not made any impact on rural lives. The earlier two policies of the government — NTP 94 and NTP 99 — have failed to meet this basic need of rural people. Highest priority should be given to the upgradation of all 607,491 VPTs into Public Infocom Centres (PICs), so that the rural population can have access to the information highway, which will enable them to take part in e-governance initiatives of state and central governments.

President A.P.J Abdul Kalam recently unveiled his vision of empowering rural India, through Village Knowledge Centres. These centres will provide the necessary knowledge inputs to the Pura (Providing Urban Amenities to Rural Areas) programme. These centres can easily be built around the PICs. To convert the VPTs to PICs, a large number of them will need to be upgraded to modern digital technology (from the outdated analogue technology that makes them unfit to be connected to the broadband information highway for multimedia communication). Internet which is the information highway still largely remains an urban phenomenon. More investment should be made in the National Information Highway so that it reaches all corners of the country.

Sanchar Bhawan needs to have a look at the comparative indicators of growth in telecom and IT in China and India. A comparison of economic growth in urban and rural areas indicates that while urban incomes in China have increased by 360 per cent over the past 20 years, rural incomes increased by 480 per cent. This impressive growth rate, particularly in rural areas, is closely linked with growth of telecom services in these areas.

China invested nearly $ 50 billion on internet infrastructure during the Nineties mainly to bridge the digital divide. India has invested only about $ 1 billion on internet infrastructure during the same period without any attempt to bridge the urban-rural chasm. Although cellular mobile telephony recorded the highest growth rate in the world in China, the country has an equally impressive record in the growth of basic services — the objective being the provision of at least one fixed household phone in every house by 2010. Only after achieving the fixed telephony targets was emphasis put on the spread of cellular mobile phones.

Drawing a lesson from the Chinese example, India’s policy-makers should revitalise the concept of Universal Service Obligation (USO). Telecom operators should be legally obliged to discharge their USO and their licence agreement should explicitly specify this obligation. In the absence of such a legal obligation, they have not contributed to the growth of rural telecommunication in the past.

Universal service is defined as a minimum set of services of a specified quality that is available to all. It is generally provided through the fixed public network with access to emergency numbers. In a liberalised era, there should be a mechanism to reimburse the net cost incurred by the operators in fulfilling their USO. The Universal Service Fund (USF) that has been set up recently should fully meet the cost of providing universal service and universal access to ‘uneconomic’ rural and remote areas. The Access Deficient Contribution (ADC), which has an identical objective, should be abolished as it is very difficult to administer and duplicates the role of USF.

To ensure fair competition in the telecom market in many countries, policy-makers have forced a structural separation on the incumbent. In Japan, the incumbent NTT has recently been restructured into three separate corporations — NTT (East), NTT (West) & NTT (long distance). Such restructuring is the need of the hour in India. BSNL long distance operations need to be separated from its mobile and basic service operations in each circle. Each circle should be run by an independent operating company. Unless BSNL is run on the basis of circle boundaries by structurally separate operating companies, the playing field will not remain level to promote fair competition. The formation of a Competition Comm-ission is long overdue. It should be expedited. The commission should play the role of an impartial umpire and enforce the rules of the game.

Finally, due to the convergence of telecom and IT infrastructures, policy-makers should take an integrated view of the infocom infrastructure. The new policy should be called NIP i.e., National Infocom Policy, rather than adopting the old nomenclature of NTP, i.e., National Telecom Policy.

NIP 2006 should take a comprehensive view of not only the telecom network and services but also internet and IT services. If we have to bring an Information Society by 2020, the internet or the Information Highway cannot be neglected anymore.

The writer is a former member ofTrai and the Telecom Commission