3 Connectivity-Related Problems India Faced in 2015

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PM Modi’s win in 2014 allowed him to pursue his dream of ‘Digital India’ – a program that aims to introduce e-governance to the people and forge channels of communication and connectivity for the country’s 1.2 billion people.

However, it is important to distance ideas from reality. While ‘Digital India’ is an idea that will hopefully be achieved sooner rather than later, India is currently facing 3 major (very real) connectivity-related issues, all of which remain unresolved.

Here are the 3 connectivity issues faced in India:

1. Net Neutrality 

What is Net Neutrality?

Traditionally, the Internet has been a free platform where users have had equal access to everything online. Net Neutrality is when Internet users can decide what they view and how they view it, without the influence of telecom operators and Internet companies. In simple words, the internet service providers should provide access to all the content without blocking or discriminating any information, websites or applications.

In the absence of Net Neutrality, users would have to pay extra to access certain data and Internet companies would have to pay telecom operators to feature their data to users. By increasing the price or decreasing the speed of certain services, telecom operators and Internet companies could determine which websites, apps and social media platforms are used more by the people. 

How does it affect the public?

Let’s say you pay your service provider (Vodafone) Rs.499/month for a 3GB plan of Internet data. You’re free to use that data however you’d like, whether it’s to stream funny videos, shop online or Tweet. Now if you wanted to shop online for a pair of shoes using your data plan, you could use a number of platforms to do that (Amazon, eBay, Flipkart, Snapdeal, etc.).

With Net Neutrality all 4 platforms would be equal – they would consume the same amount of data to use and they would take as long as the other to load. However, if there was no Net Neutrality, Amazon could pay Vodafone to make theirs the fastest and cheapest platform to load for purchasing items. Which means Vodafone would deliberately make eBay, Flipkart and Snapdeal slower and more expensive to use. Without Net Neutrality, Internet companies with deep pockets can rank higher on platforms, making it unfairly difficult for small and new businesses to get to the top. Some would argue that the absence of Net Neutrality would even allow filters to political dissent and social activism.

So what happened?

The Net Neutrality debate first touched India in December 2014 when the service provider, Airtel, announced that it would charge extra for voice calls made via apps like WhatsApp and Skype when it realized that these apps were eating into profits from their primary services (ie: calls and texts). As soon as this news was revealed, the public and the media lashed out.

TRAI, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, used this as an opportunity to formulate national laws on Net Neutrality by inviting comments and opinions from the users. Within a month, by 24th April 2015, they were flooded with over a million emails from Indian users campaigning for Net Neutrality. Despite, this debate there is no official decision or legislation regarding Net Neutrality in India.

What’s the other side of this argument?

Telecom operators provide the public with Internet, and handle the cost of infrastructure to carry that Internet. When they receive more subscribers, they bear the cost of new infrastructure. As this is an ever-changing technology, old infrastructure becomes useless and telecom operators have to bear these losses.

Seen from the telecom operator’s perspective, Net Neutrality almost acts as an obstacle in turning a profit. And finally, with companies like Facebook who have deep pockets, a flexible Internet could be an opportunity for India to bring connectivity to people who still don’t have access.

2. Call Drops

What are “Call Drops”?

Due to lack of infrastructure and inadequate resource allocation, cell phone users experience low signal, abruptly terminated calls, no-network areas and disturbances during calls. This is popularly known as “Call Drops”.

How would it affect the public?

Poor cell-phone reception is inconvenient for the public, particularly for individuals and companies that depend on connectivity for their work. For instance, the Supreme Court is an area that reports highest call drops in New Delhi making it difficult for lawyers, policymakers and clients to do legal research or coordinate quickly on important matters. This makes the users suffer and it reflects badly on the service providers.

So what happened?

Cell phone call services work between the spectrum range of 300 MHz and 3000 MHz.

Lower spectrum = Better quality cell service. This means that all service providers want lower range spectrum. However, there are limited spectrums that can be allocated by the Government, and so each service provider gets only a small share of it. As a result, if too many users are making calls at the same time, the calls start “dropping”.

Coupled with this is the problem of infrastructure: many of the existing call towers are in poor condition. To support the growing number of subscribers, the country needs atleast 1 lakh new telephone towers. The permission to build new towers is given by municipal bodies. Unfortunately, there is no uniform standard procedure between municipal bodies of states for such construction.

The Government can do several things to ease the problem:

  • Limit the number of service providers in the market
  • Establish national procedures (applicable equally across states) for building new towers
  • Commission state-owned land and buildings for the building more towers
  • Open up spectrum that is currently locked for defense purposes

And, service providers can:

  • Invest in new technologies that optimize spectrum and manage call traffic smoothly
  • Invite only those many subscribers that can be accommodated by their existing infrastructure
  • Share towers and unused frequencies to accommodate more callers

As the situation worsens, neither the Government nor telecom operators are taking the first step to address it. In the meanwhile, telecom operators have offered users free talk-time for dropped calls; but this is more of a band-aid solution than a real response to the issue.

What’s the other side of this argument?

The problem of call drops is a real one but there is much debate about whose responsibility it is to resolve it and how. Added to that is a miscellany of other issues:

  • Building towers takes up land, a resource that is already scarce in the country
  • Health fears related to radiation from telephone towers has deterred their construction in several areas

While government bodies and telecom operators argue this one out, callers are left saying “Hello? Hello…??”

3. Encryption Policy 

What is Encryption Policy?

The Encryption Policy is a Government document which stated that all electronic users have to save 90 days worth of encrypted data (sent or received) to present it to security agencies if asked. Else they could be penalised.

How would it affect the public?

“Encrypted Data” under the Encryption Policy includes sensitive information like credit card details and passwords. The result of which it directly encroaches one’s privacy.  Apart from privacy issues, the policy also increases the chances of cyber fraud and hacking.

So what happened?

In September 2015, the Dept. of Electronics & Information Technology (DEITY) released a draft of the Encryption Policy. When this draft policy was published online, the public disapproved of it, calling it a gross violation of privacy. Like Net Neutrality, users saw this as a means to control their Internet activity.

Almost immediately after people began protesting, the Government clarified that apps like Facebook, Whatsapp, etc. would be exempt from this policy. But it was too late. The draft policy was so vaguely written and prone to misunderstanding that Government had no option but to withdraw it the very next day.

What’s the other side of this argument?

Similar Encryption Policies are in force in many different parts of the world and nations would argue that they need such a framework for National Security. As cyber fraud is a common occurrence, a Government requires a system to investigate leads. In the case of India however, if a draft Encryption Policy leaves scope for personal privacy to be violated without cause, then there is scope for policy improvement.

And that’s a round-up of all the connectivity-related issues that seem to be troubling India. 

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