Communications Today, August 03, 2023
IAFI has called upon the Government to prioritize the consumer interests in the ongoing 6GHz discussions in the country. In a letter to the newly appointed secretary Department of telecom, Shri Bharat Bhatia President IAFI, has asked the Government to urgently delicense the Lower 6Ghz band to support consumer internet interests and to support innovation in the country.
Recently, The Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Modi highlighted that technology is a tool of the nation’s progress. Its potential has been harnessed for transformation across sectors and for citizen empowerment. This includes development of revolutionary technology instruments such as DigiLocker for facilitating paperless governance, Unified Payments Interface (UPI) for digital payments, Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC) for e-commerce and Skill India Digital platform for online learning, among many others. To leverage these for a new India in the Amrit Kaal, universal and meaningful connectivity for all citizens is necessary.
Although India already has the highest number of digital transactions in the world and its number of active internet users are likely to grow around 19 percent in the next two years, there remains tremendous development potential waiting to be unlocked. Multiple reports highlight the multi-dimensional palpable digital divide in India. It has been observed that inequalities based on geographical location, gender and income level are replicated in the digital space as well. More than half the Indian population does not have access to internet, and it is feared that due to this disparity, inclusion and thereby development shall be affected.
There have been dedicated efforts to ensure proliferation of affordable and reliable internet access, with an aim to bridge the urban-rural digital divide and provide opportunities for upward economic mobility. This includes government initiatives such as BharatNet, National Broadband Mission, Prime Minister Wireless Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) framework and Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan for the North Eastern region, among others. To reap benefits of these, it is crucial that effective implementation and focus on last mile connectivity is maintained.
However, a recent study by CUTS on consumer perceptions and challenges from existing internet services and future expectations, highlighted that although many rural consumers want internet access through Wi-Fi, they are unable to avail the same. Most of them are low-income families, with more members. Thereby, they are in the most need of Wi-Fi connection at home enabling multiple device connections, as opposed to multiple individual mobile data subscriptions. The study found that given the lack of Wi-Fi service availability and awareness, consumers are forced to buy multiple data connections, which comes with its own constraints of daily limits, cost and lack of coverage. Resultantly, these families are trapped in a vicious Wi-Fi exclusion trap.
Further, given the financial constraints in such families, data connections are bought only for a few members. In doing so, usually women and senior citizens are excluded from any material access to internet. In fact, in some cases, owing to inability to pay high and recurring data cost, physical access to smartphones is also denied to female family members.
In order to extract of consumers from the Wi-Fi exclusion trap, Wi-Fi service availability is necessary. This would enable internet access throughout the day to more members, providing opportunities for enhanced learning, productivity and income generation. In this regard, experts have opined that with adequate backhaul and sufficient availability of spectrum bands including bands such as 6 GHz, last-mile connectivity can be bolstered.
Over 60 countries across the globe have already made 6 GHz band available for license-exempt use. Countries such as Argentina, South Africa, Singapore, Russia, Mexico, Namibia, among others, are recent additions to this list. Regulators have made a strong case that license-exempt use would lead to a boost for Wi-Fi availability and uptake, while also enabling faster data communications between devices connected to Wi-Fi. Notably, even though India has more active online users than population of countries like United States, it has around one-twentieth of available spectrum for Wi-Fi.
With so many countries making 6 GHz available for license-exempt use, reports suggest that over 473 million devices compatible with Wi-Fi in 6 GHz band, i.e. Wi-Fi 6E are likely to be available in the market. The CUTS study found that around 44 percent consumers said they are keen on upgrading to new generations of Wi-Fi, such as Wi-Fi 6E to access latest devices. Notably, younger consumers have shared an increased demand for latest wearables and entertainment devices in the next few years. Therefore, efforts towards creating a supporting ecosystem in India is necessary, so that consumers are able to access and avail latest technology products.
With this increasing demand and reliance, an emphasis on better and seamless quality of experience is necessary as well. Consumers rely heavily on Wi-Fi for critical use cases in the existing Wi-Fi bands. However, the study found that consumers expect higher speed, reliable connectivity, better range and secure Wi-Fi at affordable rates, especially for use cases like education and work. 6 GHz with its wide channels would be in a position to support increased density and use cases such as access to health, education, government engagement and others.
Ensuring inclusive access to these multiple use cases by unlocking ubiquitous connectivity would greatly bolster equitable and sustainable development in India. In this regard, India should consider the adoption of license-exempt use of 6 GHz, like its contemporaries. This would lead to decongestion of existing Wi-Fi bands, better quality of experience, opportunities for development of new use cases and availability of latest products for the Indian consumer.
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