After Microsoft’s Free Basics Moment, Spotlight on White Space Tech

The DoT is undertaking an internal audit of just how much spectrum is up for grabs, while the telecom regulator may kick off a consultation process in the coming months.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella with Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. Credit: PTI

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella with Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: The government and telecom regulator are undertaking renewed efforts to look at how India’s white spaces, the term given to unused chunks of terrestrial TV spectrum, can be best utilised after the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad effectively rejected a proposal last month made by Microsoft that asked for the spectrum to be provided free of cost.

Projects that look to make use of white spaces are yet another item on a long list of technologies that, if harnessed, could dramatically boost rural Internet connectivity in the country.

And yet, according to industry executives and government officials The Wire spoke to, the lack of a regulatory framework, the fierce lobbying by telecom operators and the wariness with which telecom ministry officials view any sort of spectrum allocation has prevented white space technology from taking off.

However, in the last month, according to sources, the DoT and TRAI have started kicking off audits and consultation processes that will hopefully bring some order to this space.

Microsoft’s internet connectivity dream

The initiative that is most reflective of the current disorder, and one that has gotten the most public attention in this area, has been Microsoft’s foray. Over the last two years, the software giant and its CEO Satya Nadella have spent a significant amount of attention and resources in pushing this project; from announcing its intentions in late 2014 to achieving government clearance and conducting trials and pilot projects in Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam in late 2015.

Last September – when Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a trip to Silicon Valley, at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose – Nadella boasted of Microsoft’s white space technology, announcing that his company would “take low-cost broadband technology to some five lakh villages” across India.

Since then, however, things have quickly unravelled. According to people with direct knowledge of the matter, this was because of two reasons. The first was that Microsoft’s proposal, which would have the unutilised TV spectrum be provided by the government for free was too naive and quickly attracted the attention of the telecom lobby. The second is that the Modi government and the DoT have very little idea of what exactly they want to do with the unutilised spectrum.

Microsoft’s proposal was simple: if the government provided a little over 100 Mhz of this white space for free, the company would “empower entrepreneurs” by providing them with the technology. As Microsoft India Chairman Bhaskar Pramanik put in an interview in January, if 100 Mhz was made free, “anybody be it a bank, post office, kirana store or self-help group could use the [Microsoft’s] technology, deploy the equipment, provide Wi-Fi and charge users a small fee to recoup costs”.

“Asking for this spectrum to be provided without a license and for free was a mistake. Not only did the COAI [Cellular Operator’s Association of India] and the telecom lobby bombard with pressure, after 2G it is almost impossible to clear a decision that will provide spectrum for free. Such a decision needs to come as part of an appropriate regulatory framework and backing from the PMO’s office,” said a former DoT official who was shifted last year to a different ministry.

This backlash ultimately culminated in a DoT note last month which clearly stated that “commercial deployment of Internet using TV white spaces in 470-698 MHz spectrum band will not be allowed through de-licensing to any player except for research purposes…” – effectively throwing cold water over Microsoft’s plans.

This implies, though not confirms, that the government intends on auctioning the TV spectrum in the coming months or years.

DoT internal audit

However, Microsoft’s proposal and the interest around white space technology has  also raised other questions within the DoT and government. At the moment, according to industry insiders The Wire spoke to, there is no official estimate of just how much white space and unutilised TV spectrum there is available for use in India.

There are two broad spectrum bands here. The first is the 470- 582 MHz band,  parts of which the government recently and temporarily allocated in specific regions for research purposes. Another band 200-300 MHz apparently could also apparently be used, according to Microsoft’s initial press releases on the project.

But just how much spectrum is currently not being used? One estimation comes from a detailed IIT Bombay study which noted that India has only one terrestrial TV service provider (Doordarshan), and because of that nearly 12 (80%) out of 15 channels of 8 Mhz in the “TV-UHF band-IV” are available as TV white space. This would imply that in that band, anywhere between 82 MHz to 120 MHz of spectrum (in the 470-582 MHz band) is available depending on the location.

The DoT itself, however, is unaware of how much spectrum is up for grabs. Which is why, according to sources, in the last month, senior officials and a panel that is studying white space technology have started an internal audit of the exact amount of TV spectrum that could be used to provide rural broadband connectivity.

Regulatory framework

While Microsoft’s white spaces project has nothing to do with the net neutrality troubles caused by Facebook’s Free Basics, it’s path and uncertain future highlights the lack of a regulatory framework or a set of  goals for how internet connectivity should be increased in rural India.

One of the telecom lobby’s major arguments against Microsoft’s proposal is that allocating white spaces for a sole technology such as “wired/wireless broadband might bring unfair advantages” while distorting the market because of “inequitable regulation”. Furthermore, if the spectrum is provided for free it will almost certainly cause a loss to the government.

This is true, but only to a certain extent, as experts point out. “Of course allocating TV spectrum for a specific technology or giving it away at throwaway prices will result in some amount of market distortion or losses. But if a regulatory framework is in place that says this has to be done in order to provide greater internet connectivity then it becomes less of a problem. But without that how can any decision be taken,” a senior industry executive told The Wire.

Some headway in this regard is being made. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India plans on calling together other white space technology holders next month – a number of pilot projects using different types of technology are currently being conducted by researchers in IIT Bombay and IIT Madras (along with Nokia) – in order to discuss the problems and regulatory scenario. According to sources, this could possible result in a TRAI consultation on white spaces that would provide recommendations to the DoT.

Furthermore, according to people with knowledge of the matter, the DoT , headed by new minister of state Manoj Sinha, may end up considering different forms of licensing conditions for white spaces that will  require less upfront commitment when compared to a full blown auction.

“Ultimately, an auction might not happen if backing comes from the PMO. But until then this spectrum will continue to be underutilised. And that is, honestly, the biggest crime. The telecom lobby cries if the spectrum isn’t auctioned as they want to be a middle-man for technology providers like Microsoft. But do they have a plan for how they will use it? It’s just sitting there right now, which is the biggest loss,” said one senior DoT official.