New broadband definition highlights the plight of India’s barely connected “grey spots”

The definition of broadband was upgraded last week to mandate a minimum speed of 2Mbps, but telcos rarely prioritise the connectivity of users in small towns with a few overloaded towers

Updated - February 13, 2023 07:59 am IST

Published - February 12, 2023 08:51 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Photo used for representation purpose only.

Photo used for representation purpose only. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock

Parvez Ahmed Qureshi has been complaining to his telecom provider, Vodafone Idea, that his mobile internet speeds are unusably low, not even reaching the 512Kbps previously promised to broadband consumers. But the operator’s representatives have visited the 25-year-old’s home in the Songadh taluka of Gujarat’s Tapi district — located about 30 km from district headquarters — and concluded that the speeds are within acceptable limits, blaming network congestion for his slow internet.

Between the villages without any 4G network coverage whatsoever and the large cities where high speeds are taken for granted, lie the oft-ignored smaller urban settlements struggling with weak connectivity. These towns do have 4G network towers, but telecom users such as Mr. Qureshi struggle to get usable internet, typically because there aren’t enough towers, and those that are installed are overloaded with traffic from a high number of users.

Such towns, which lose out in the digital divide in a less documented way, may start getting more attention, now that the definition of “broadband”, which 4G networks are typically classified under in India, has been upgraded from 512Kbps to a minimum of 2Mbps. According to data published by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) from September 2022, the three main telecom providers classify the majority of their subscriber base — almost 95% — as “broadband” customers, which now means that they should be able to access internet speeds of at least 2Mbps.

Mr. Qureshi would ideally like to get a fixed line broadband connection — which doesn’t usually run into the kind of congestion issues that wireless networks face — but the only operator in Songadh is RailTel, a majority State-owned operator that would charge more than ₹4,000 to install a connection at his home, a fee that he says he can’t afford. Like him, the vast majority of Indian internet users — over 96% — primarily use wireless connections offered by Vodafone Idea, Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio.

Yawning quality gap

Speeds below 2Mbps are not sufficient for video calls, streaming video and other such uses to which the better connected subscribers in cities have become accustomed. In fact, the connectivity in these cities is so much better that the condition of barely connected towns is less visible.

This can be inferred from the difference between the median and mean internet speeds that are recorded by internet users. The gap is yawning: December 2022 data by Ookla shows that the mean wireless internet speed in India was 108.86Mbps, while the median was just 25.29Mbps, barely above the United States’ definition of broadband.

The difference between mean and median measures is that the former shows what an average user is likely to get as an internet speed, whereas the median speed is just the midpoint of the fastest and slowest connections. A high deviation between the two is an indicator of high inequality in the quality of access. China’s median speed was 112.22Mbps in the same period, while its mean was 188.96Mbps, meaning that its telecom operators’ speeds are largely equitable in places where some coverage is available.

Fixed line broadband and public WiFi hotspots — often proposed as a relatively inexpensive solution to fill in the gaps where wireless providers are less present — aren’t faring too well either.

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‘Not a priority’

TRAI data from November 2022, the latest available, show that there are only 3.18 crore fixed line broadband subscribers in India, and only 10.8 lakh “fixed wireless” or WiFi hotspot subscribers. Even with players like Reliance Jio aggressively expanding their fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks, the number of fixed line broadband subscribers grew month on month by just 1.51% in November.

“A large number of rural areas, smaller towns and remote areas are not particularly lucrative to telecom operators,” telecom analyst Mahesh Uppal said. “So even though they have connectivity in many of those places, they don’t prioritise that connectivity.”

Mr. Uppal cited cases from the past where some telecom towers in remote areas were switched off at night to save diesel. “What the telcos have not done is to develop markets,” Mr. Uppal said, indicating that telecom operators need to promote internet usage in order to make it viable for them to expand the reach and capacity of their networks.

Grey spots: connected, barely

There are 45,180 villages in India which do not have any 4G coverage at all, according to data provided by the government in its written response to a question in the Rajya Sabha. It added that the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) has budgeted ₹26,316 crore for a project to connect these villages.

Places without cellular connectivity at all are called “white spots”. But harder to map are the “grey spots”, areas which show that simply being “connected” still may not let users get enough out of their access.

Hardik Arora, 23, a resident of Panipat, said that his Airtel 4G connection is practically unusable except at night, when fewer people are browsing the internet. Even then, he said, his speeds are lower than 1Mbps, less than half the new standard for broadband. Panipat is not a small town by any means — it had over 1.2 million residents in 2011. But as Mr. Arora’s experience shows, grey spots of scarcely usable connectivity can be found anywhere.

Other metrics hint at the situation more clearly than official subscription reports. 5G speeds and wired broadband in India often have world class speeds in the cities. But the telecom coverage analysis firm Opensignal’s “Excellent Consistent Coverage” measurement tells a different story. This metric measures “how often users’ experience on a network was sufficient to support common applications’ requirements”. All three of the major telecom operators in India fell below the global average of 65.4% last December.

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