National Broadband Plan (2004-2010)

How the policy community weighs in?

Presented here is part of the outcome of a workshop-based study (Constituted Context of Policy: Grappling with Re-regulation) conducted by final year students at the Centre for Culture Media and Governance in 2012. Shafaque Alam in this write-up has attempted to map the shift and analyse the policy communities involved in drawing up of the National Broadband Plan 2004 and 2010, and their influence on the final policy document. An alumnus of  Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi from 2010-2012, he is presently associated with The Statesman , an English daily and  can be contacted at shafaquealam@gmail.com

 

Mainstream policy literature identifies a number of activities as part of policy-making. It includes policy analysis, policy advice, decision-making, and also implementation and evaluation (Colebatch: 2006). People involved in these activities are referred to as policy-makers or Policy Communities. At the decision-making level, they are largely government representatives; however, trade bodies, civil society and individuals can and also contribute in the formation of policy.

Policy-making process is an exercise in informed problem-solving, where a problem is identified, data is collected, the problem is analysed, and advice is given to the policy-maker, who makes a decision which is then implemented[1]. So, arriving at policy is a choice. Some people make choices, and others help them in making the best choice. Thus, those who help or contribute towards options, choices and rationale, i.e. Policy Communities, also play a vital role in policy formation.

Presented here is part of the outcome of a workshop-based study (Constituted Context of Policy: Grappling with Re-regulation) conducted by final year students at the Centre for Culture Media and Governance in 2012. The study attempted to map the shift and analyse the policy communities involved in drawing up of the National Broadband Plan 2004 and 2010, and their influence on the final policy document.

The Mandate

In 2004, the National Broadband Policy was enacted recognising the potential of ubiquitous broadband service in the growth of national GDP and the enhancement in the quality of life of the public through societal applications including tele‐education, tele-medicine, e‐governance, entertainment and employment generation by way of high-speed access to information and web-based communication.

The policy stated  that ‘an always-on data connection that is able to support interactive services including Internet access and has the capability of the minimum download speed of 256 kilo bits per second (kbps) to an individual subscriber is called broadband’. [2]

But, this speed of broadband service was considered ineffective and the need for higher speed was acutely felt.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) report of 2006 accepted that the penetration of broadband in India was a relatively new phenomenon. Based on the recognition that Information Communication Technology (ICT) plays a significant role in bridging the divide between the poor and the rich worldwide, the government mooted a plan to boost Internet and broadband penetration, which is yet inadequate in India. A number of trade bodies and civil society also came in with recommendations for the government in order to influence the character and structure of the Broadband Policy.

The Stakeholders  

Trade bodies, founded and funded by business houses, operate on behalf of industry. These associations are involved in lobbying; and their main focus is the standardization of services.  The primary goals of trade bodies are to influence policy in a direction favourable to their group members and lobbying to support or oppose particular legislations. In doing so, trade bodies attempt to influence the activities of regulatory bodies.

Civil society or advocacy groups are organisations that seek to advance common public interest outside the ambit of state and market forces. They can also refer to groupings of non-governmental organisations and institutions seeking to act on the interest and will of citizens. The demands of civil society and trade bodies vary significantly and they often tend to pull the policy outcomes in opposing directions.

Pulls and Pressures

As a regulator, TRAI’s prime objective is to ensure that the interests of consumers are protected and to nurture the conditions for growth of the telecommunications industry.  However, there are a disproportionately large number of active trade bodies as compared to civil society organisations working in the field of Broadband Policy. The study shows that whenever TRAI issued a consultation paper, trade bodies pro-actively took part in the discussion and commented on the provisions. However, the response from civil society groups was both slow and not uniform. The difference in approach was not just due to the fewer number of civil society organisations working on the field but also their inclination to push their own agenda. The trade bodies, which look after the interests of the industry, on the other hand, were more vocal to try and have their agenda incorporated.

The demands of the trade bodies and civil societies differed significantly. Trade bodies were more concerned with operating conditions and profitability. Their primary concerns were the lack of availability of broadband connectivity, inadequate bandwidth, sharing of infrastructure with other service providers, reasonable price of spectrum and the open auction of spectrum. They also asked for Universal Service Obligation (USO) subsidies for Internet Service Providers (ISP), equal incentives, and opportunities for incumbent operators to access a level playing field. Some of the other demands made by them included cost-effective broadband, encouragement of  Public-Private-Partnership (PPP), a tax holiday (no service tax and license fee on broadband revenue, and no spectrum charges for wireless technologies used for broadband for at least a fixed period of three years). Trade bodies argued that positive consideration of the above mentioned issues would encourage service providers to take consumer-friendly initiatives.

In contrast, civil society organisations were concerned with the quality of broadband services. They argued that not only was the download speed of 256 Kbps too low for accessing most Internet services, but also that in most cases, the assured minimum speed was not provided by the service providers. Consumers were unable to seek redress as lack of technical know-how meant that they were not in a position to ascertain the actual speed of the broadband services provided to them. Civil society organisations advocated an increase in the speed of broadband from 256 kbps to 1 mbps. They also demanded that the monthly rental charges of broadband services be made affordable.

The opposing sides found common ground on two demands – cost-effective and affordable broadband services, as well as access devices being reasonable priced.

It was also noted that there were more than 350 licensed ISPs out of which only 135 were offering Internet services. The top 20 ISPs cater to 98% of the Internet subscriber base. Thus, the rationale for such a large number of ISPs that is neither contributing to the growth of Internet use nor bringing in competition to the sector was regarded questionable[3].

Outcome

The recommendations of trade bodies and civil society organisations were at odds. And the study found that their recommendations did not receive balanced representation in the National Broadband Plan 2010. More demands of trade bodies than those of civil society were reflected in this policy document.

Many of the demands of trade bodies like USO funds being provided for the laying of optical fibre networks, and broadband being routed through DTH/DSL/Cable services were considered in the final document. The demand for lowering the prices of access devices was reflected in terms of the authority recommending that the government may review the duties levied on inputs (parts, components, and spares) and finished products used in providing broadband and Internet services. However, some of their other demands were overlooked. Providing equal opportunities and incentives for private operators did not find mention and sharing of infrastructure and the PPP model were also not reflected.

From the perspective of civil society organisations, the recommendation for providing content in local languages was totally ignored. There was also no mention of how consumers, who had grievances against broadband service providers, could seek just redress. No specific mechanism was spelt out to address faults and disruption in connectivity. Given that consumers do not assert their rights, the idea of market-mechanisms addressing their concerns also seem remote. However, one demand made by civil society organisations—that of increasing broadband speed from 256 kbps to 1 mbps—was considered.

The Broadband Plan also reflected some new trajectories. It stated that the next five years were going to see the spread of 3G as well as the introduction of 4G services, enabling subscribers to benefit from data and application services.

Gaps

It was also noticed that certain other trade bodies like the Internet and Mobile Association of India, I-Cube, and advocacy groups working on Internet-related issues like the Centre for Internet Society were not active in the policy process. Thus, their views are not reflected in the National Broadband Plan 2010.

REFERENCES

[1] Association of United Telecom Service Provider of India, 2006 report

[2] National Broadband Policy 2004, TRAI

[3] Colebatch Hal K, What Work Makes Policy? Policy Sciences, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Dec., 2006), pp. 309-321

This entry was published on December 26, 2012 at 9:35 pm. It’s filed under Media Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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