By July 2018, India had the world’s second largest internet user base with over 44.6 crore smart phones and 56 crore internet users. Although it started with telegrams, the major segments of communications in India today include telephone, internet and television broadcasts. The sector is growing at a very fast rate – almost at twenty times in ten years with one of the lowest tariff rates in the world.
Liberalisation in 1990s
The Indian telecommunication market has undergone a high degree of liberalisation since 1990. As a result of the intense competition it has been forced to face, there has been frequent price cuts and fast growth. It was in 1994 that the Narasimha Rao-led government introduced the policy of ‘Telecommunication for All’, with the objective of reaching out to the villages.
The telecommunications industry, which originated with a base in urban India, soon spread to rural regions, making mobile phones and televisions accessible across the world. As a result, there has been a significant bridging of the rural-urban divide in terms of digital access.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) was set up in 1974 with the objective of reducing government interventions in policies concerning the telecommunications industry. It aims to provide a fair play market for all concerned competitors. It is also responsible for decisions on tariffs, quality of services, etc. The TRAI also runs mobile apps and portals to reach out to the public and make them aware of the services that it provides.
Steep fall in prices
There have been steep drops in both call charges and data charges in a country where telecommunications services were already one of the cheapest. This happened especially after Reliance Jio made its entry into the market, turning the Indian telecom market into the world’s biggest consumers of wireless data. This has led to smaller firms either merging or quitting the market altogether. According to Amitabh Kant, Chief Executive Officer, NITI Aayog, “The plunge in prices has led to surge in data traffic to 1.5 billion gigabytes (GB) a month.” He added in December 2017, “Mobile data consumption (in India) is higher than the US and China put together.”
Internet rates plunged by 93% while data per user rose by around 25 times in three years from 2014 to 2017. Penetrations of both smart phones and mobile data rose starkly as a result - doubling from 190 million to 390 million - and increasing about 66% respectively. Researchers studied 57 plans and found that 1GB of data was accessible in India at Rs. 1.75. Many operators, including the Cellular Operators Association of India think that the current rates are unstable and have been facing continuous losses for a long time now.
Interruptions in service
As a result of the low tariffs, while consumers have been the clear winners in the terms of prices, the quality of calls and data have been sacrificed. Voice call drops and data interruptions have increased highly after the cut in service changes.
TRAI introduced a rule in 2016 which was later scrapped by the Supreme Court on the grounds of being unreasonable. The rule had said that the consequences would be compensated for each dropped call in monetary terms.
Shraddhya Barua, a Reliance Jio consumer in Behala, Kolkata, told BE, “I started using the Reliance Jio network because of the exciting deals. But calls keep dropping and internet speeds are also low nowadays. Last day, I was talking to a friend for around 40 minutes during which there were six connection losses.”
Another Jio consumer from Garia, Aparna Roy, told BE, “It is strange that calls to and from other companies get disconnected every 30 seconds. Sometimes, it is not even possible to connect with users of other networks.” In July 2018, TRAI set up new quality routers for its networks with an objective to check potential voice losses on calls but consumers don’t seem to be satisfied with the quality provided.
Although there are speculations around the entry of 5G spectrum in India, experts say that it might not be feasible by 2020, which is the target set by the Modi government.
“5G roll out is the biggest driver for all major investment into fibre infrastructure in next five years. The next generation of technology’s performance will be dependent on the overflow of content to and from data centres,” said Sandeep Aggarwal, Managing Director of Paramount Communications. It seems that that the only way to establish 5G connections in the coun-try is by making fibre connectivity possible in all corners of the country. With major operators already saddled with large losses and high debts, 5G looks like a distant dream as of now.