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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The dispute between defence and telecom on vacating spectrum must end

After the ministries of defence and telecom agreed, in May 2009, to make 45 MHz of spectrum used for defence purposes available for commercial 2G and 3G mobile services, there has been regular exchange of letters between the two ministries, but no action to release spectrum. The ministry of defence says that its commitment was subject to the department of telecom ( DoT )) laying a Rs 10,000 crore optical fibre network for it and, further, waiving any charges for spectrum use for defence purposes. 

These conditions have not been met and so Defence is not in a position to release any spectrum now. At a time when the number of subscribers continues to grow at a rapid pace and spectrum availability squeezes telecom companies' ability to offer quality service, this is not an acceptable state of affairs. When two ministries of the government are unable to reach an agreement on a matter that concerns both of them, it should be resolved through an intervention by the Prime Minister . And the matter brooks no delay. 

The effort should be to provide every Indian with highspeed data connectivity, for India to realise the productive potential of her 1.2 billion people. Developed countries are making sound progress in this regard; the French now deeming broadband access a fundamental right and the US rolling out a national broadband plan to provide every home with 100 Mbps connectivity (in India, mere 256 kbps still qualifies as broadband). It is also criminal to permit state-owned broadcaster Prasar Bharati to squat on a huge swathe of spectrum that it uses for analogue terrestrial broadcast. 

There is every need to fully fund and accelerate Prasar Bharati's desultory digitalisation programme, so as to release additional spectrum for mobile networks. India has to target achieving a high-speed data network reaching all parts of the country, on which voice is just one functionality. For meaningful inclusion of the poor in the growth process, such data networks are imperative, to provide banking, health and education services. Wireless would be an integral part of it. The PM must ensure availability of the needed spectrum, amidst the squabbles among his ministers.

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