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January 19, 1998

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N Vittal

Spectrum analysis

Bad radio frequency management could kill the IT revolution.

Email this story to a friend. What steel was to the industrial revolution, the radio frequency spectrum is to the information technology revolution. But unlike steel, the frequency spectrum cannot be manufactured at will. It is a finite and natural resource.

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That is why the judicious management of the frequency spectrum is so crucial to technological progress.

But I am afraid India is grossly mismanaging spectrum management. Jawaharlal Nehru once said India is not a poor country. It is rich country in which poor people happen to live. Later, Nani Palkhivala extrapolated the idea when he said that with the 'permit licence raj' the country has perfected the art of keeping people poor. These comments are well demonstrated in the way India is going about mismanaging its precious electromagnetic spectrum.

Spectrum management is not just a matter of carefully cosseting spectrum to see that it is not used wastefully. Neither is spectrum management a matter of taking unnecessary time to efficiently get the spectrum assigned and into use. Rather, efficient spectrum management is (or ought to be) the art and the science of carefully planning spectrum allocation in a carefully coordinated manner and then speedily and efficiently assigning frequencies into use for the benefit of the people as quickly as possible and with a minimum of harmful interference.

Before we discuss spectrum management any further we must be clear about two terms: 'frequency allocation' and 'frequency management'.

The International Telecom Union defines 'allocation' to mean the allocation of bands of frequencies for service categories. Like frequency f1 to f2 for aeronautical mobile, frequency f3 to f4 for fixed and mobile terrestrial service and frequency f5 to f6 for satellite mobile services. These planned allocations need to be coordinated on a global basis, some on a regional basis and there is room for some limited national discretion to meet varying national needs and prerogatives. Allocations do not 'belong' to a user such as a government department.

Assignment, on the other hand, is the specific assignment of a specific frequency for a specific purpose by a specific licensee in a specific location, using a transmitter and antenna with specific characteristics from a specific tower height.

Regulating the spectrum is like regulating road traffic so that accidents do not occur and at the same time the road is used to the optimum extent.

Suppose, for managing traffic on our roads we have a policy under which each lane is earmarked for a particular purpose, say for buses, trucks, autorickshaws, pedestrians, cars and scooters. Then each of these lanes, which are for a particular type of vehicle, is earmarked exclusively for one user. If a new user wants to use the lane the permission of the first user has to be got. It is quite likely that entire lane is not being fully utilised by the user, to whom it has been allotted. Even though the lane is available, because of this policy of earmarking the entire lane for a particular user, the entire system moves very slowly. Anybody with an understanding of road transport can see immediately the absurdity of this system.

Yet, in fact, this is the policy we are following as far as the management of the radio frequency spectrum is concerned. Ninety nine per cent of the available spectrum has been earmarked for government departments. Each department has been given a certain range of frequencies.

Even though these departments may not be using the frequencies fully, the wireless adviser to the government, who is the legal authority in charge of managing the spectrum, has to wait for the clearance of the departments before he can decide on the request of a new applicant.

There are 40 types of frequency uses. A National Frequency Allocation Plan was drawn up in 1982. It specified that the Department of Telecommunications, which determines the allocation of frequencies in keeping with international conventions of the ITU, should assign the frequencies to various government departments. That's how a road-transport model came to dominate the world of radio frequencies in India.

The arrangement was free of trouble as long as the government retained monopoly over the telecommunications business. But vehicle land systems is breaking under the market forces unleashed with the deregulation and liberalisation of the telecom sector.

Two interesting examples will bring home the point:

Dr Jhunjhunwala of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, has invented a new technology based on the wireless in local loop concept. It is a very cheap and costs only 30 per cent cost of the current technologies. South Africa, China and four other countries have already bought it and are changing their telecom systems accordingly.

You will be surprised to know that India is not going to use this technology. To use it, all that is needed in India is the earmarking of the 20 MHz frequencies in the range of 1.6 to 1.8 GHz. But this band has been earmarked for some government departments and because of the difficulty in releasing this limited frequency, India is not able to take advantage of a homegrown technology.

What is more, 'digital enhanced cordless telephony', which is the 'wireless system in local loop' and is a rival to the 'code division multiple access', which uses a different frequency range, cannot be introduced in India.

Ultimately, the loser under our current spectrum policy is the customer.

There is another example of the negative impact of our present spectrum policy. The Department of Telecommunications recently rejected a Rs 6.8 billion loan from the ADB. It would have benefited 36,000 villages in Uttar Pradesh. This is because the technology involved in the project required a frequency band, which was not available.

Many private-sector companies will soon enter the basic voice telephony business and they will be required to use the 'wireless in local loop' technologies for starting their services.

But by the current procedures to free up the required frequency bands, the wireless adviser will be at the mercy of the government departments who have been assigned the resource. Many departments are slow in giving up their claim, leading to not only expensive delays but also an enormous waste of the precious natural resource.

Matters get worse because the sole spectrum management authority, the wireless adviser to the government, is a relatively junior officer in the pecking order of the telecom bureaucracy. Even though he has the legal powers for allocation bureaucratic gravity smothers his office.

There is yet another dimension to the issue of spectrum management. In the case of the Cricket Association of Bengal in February 1995, the Supreme Court had held that "the airwaves or frequencies are a public property. Their use has to be controlled and regulated by a public authority in the interest of the public and to prevent the invasion of their rights".

The court further directed that "the central government shall take immediate steps to establish an independent autonomous public authority with representation of all sections and interests in the society to control and regulate the use of the airwaves".

The only action the government has taken is to bring in the Broadcasting Bill, which is before the Parliament. In the process the full significance of the Supreme Court ruling which covers "the use of the airwaves including the spectrum for communications" has been lost sight of.

Can we say that the government departments occupying the spectrum space but not using it are violating the spirit of the Supreme Court judgement? Can such departments be charged with contempt of court? I wonder.

What is the way out? I suggest that:

  1. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is already in place. The wireless adviserís office should be shifted to the TRAI immediately so that an independent authority will be able to decide on the frequency allocations and ensure that maximum use is made of the resource. Thus the Supreme Court directive will also be complied with.
  2. One defect of the present system is the high degree of secrecy and lack of transparency in procedures. It is high time that the allocation of frequencies, the frequencies that are available for different type of services, be made public. As in the United States, we should also make the assignment of the frequencies public so that the potential service provider can see which frequencies are available. This will also be of tremendous use in encouraging the introduction of new technologies.
  3. The present method of the government departments hogging frequencies which they do not use and adopt the dog-in-the-manger policy of not allowing others also to use it should be given up at the earliest in the national interest. The Telecom Regulatory Authority will have the requisite clout to impose its will. Being headed by a former chief justice it will also be able to ensure that justice is done and a level playing ground is established for all players.

Unfortunately the issue of spectrum management is treated as an esoteric and arcane subject. But now that even the technology laity is aware of the benefits of mobile telephony it is high time that the people of the country realise the tremendous significance of making intelligent and optimum use of radio frequencies through better spectrum management.

Previous columns: Critical mass | T.R.a.I | Santa Clause 11(2) | The Broadcasting Bill | The death of distance | S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle | Force 7 from FICCI | Of railroads and info highways | Techno Politics | Cheating death: Ways to resurrect ITI | The HAM-handed miracle | Electronic governance | Which came first? | The four-engine design | Learning to learn | Heads 'n hands | Post-mortem | Where's the cash | Mr T S Eliot's digital wisdom | Banking on IT | R, R & R | Pots & Pans | The Changing Change | Reality check

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