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Last mile connectivity and internet exchanges critical to run internet efficiently

One of the reasons why fixed broadband did not take off in India is due to the lack of an online services ecosystem in India

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With life and business normal being disrupted with the ongoing pandemic, constant Internet access has become one of the basic needs for everyone. The Internet has pervaded all aspects of life viz personal communications, social connect, entertainment, productivity and communication tools for work from home and online education, net banking, wallet based payment gateways and through increased use of smart homes and voice/gesture assisted digital assistants etc. All above have become part of daily life and thus need ready internet availability. Mobile Internet has its limitations and it cannot fulfil requirements of constant use of large amounts of data concurrently by many people. Question then arises, what kind of internet ecosystem needs to be in place for seamless ubiquitous internet access.

Countries with well developed Internet access like Japan, South Korea, US, almost all of Europe, some countries in Latin America show us that wireline and mobile Internet are both equally important parts of the ecosystem. In India only about 8% of houses are connected by wireline broadband. India needs industry and Government to work together to resolve this situation to meet connectivity requirements of this nation of a huge young population of less than 35 years of age.

One of the reasons why fixed broadband did not take off in India is due to the lack of an online services ecosystem in India. Although these picked up in the last decade, rising daily data limits on mobile Internet did not allow fixed broadband to flourish. The ongoing pandemic has finally increased demand for wireline broadband. 

However, while the demand has increased, it is necessary to address problems in other parts of the ecosystem. First and foremost, the last mile other than coaxial cable in rural, semi-rural and small towns is non-existent. In tier 2 towns, only a small percentage of the last mile is geared for high capacity. Wireline providers need to invest heavily in FTTH to remove bottlenecks in their access networks. Telecom companies need to invest in increasing capacities to meet connectivity demands of wireline broadband.

There is a huge requirement for neutral and critical infrastructure like datacenters, Internet exchanges etc. Internet Exchange is a neutral facility connecting ISPs, content providers, hosting service providers and all online service providers. They have a very important role to play in democratising access to content for ISPs of all sizes. Since they provide the cheapest path, networks ensure that their configuration gives priority to traffic to and for Internet Exchange.  

Even though NIXI started way back in 2003, its policies and structure did not allow it to grow and enable wireline broadband. Until recently, its participants were still charged for difference in data download and upload apart from port charges and non ISPs were not allowed to participate. This changed with the entry of private players since 2013 but then it was limited to one city and one datacenter. Private players started Internet Exchange (IX) since 2013 but initially they were based in one DC in Mumbai. From 2016 IXes started making it easier for ISPs to connect by being available in multiple DCs in one city and replicating this model in multiple cities. This led to fast paced growth of traffic from the IXes.Internet Exchanges need to go deeper and they are committed to open operations in multiple cities.

The Government on its part should have a fresh look at regulations. The National Digital Communications Policy of 2018 is very ambitious and it aims to make India a hub for cloud and content. Removal of AGR will reduce costs and make wireline Internet more affordable. Removing entry fees from VNO licenses will help alternative wireline providers provide mobile services and compete with incumbents. These regulatory changes will usher India on fast paced growth of wireline broadband enabling seamless ubiquitous Internet access.

Authored by Raunak Maheshwari, Executive Director, Extreme Labs India


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