It’s 2018, but still tough to get online in the Andamans
There are no unlimited downloads and fast smartphone connections in the low-bandwidth remote islands, hitting residents and tourists
Visitors from the mainland are at first perplexed and then frustrated when they cannot ‘stay connected’ in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. A strong Internet connection is rare here, data services for smartphones are almost non-existent even in Port Blair and voice calls drop frequently. Islanders face difficulty in banking and buying online, and GST returns are often filed late.
Poor connections can potentially be disastrous. In October 2017, a bus with 39 students on its way to Billyground from a college in Mayabunder was gutted in a fire. There were no casualties, but Fire Services personnel reached late because mobile phones did not work at the site.
“I have been staying at Diglipur since January 2017. Internet is almost non-existent and even the phone network doesn’t work for more than 15 days in a month,” says Dr. Punam Tripathi, author of Routledge’s forthcoming book, The Vulnerable Andaman and Nicobar Islands: A Study of Disasters and Response. The National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN), envisioned to cover 26 States and Union Territories in 2011, is yet to connect the Andaman islands, which rely on expensive satellite bandwidth. “Do you have BSNL?” is thus a frequently heard query. BSNL sources its bandwidth from the Indian Space Research Organisation’s GSAT 16 and GSAT 18 satellites. It has hired 24 transponders for 72 base transceiver stations (BTS) for 3G and 160 for 2G across the islands, and also has 52 landline exchanges and 480 leased circuits.
Landline-linked broadband Internet is the most reliable data service here. Government authorities, banks and institutional users get 2 Mbps leased VSAT (very small aperture terminal) Internet lines. WhatsApp does work in areas where 3G coverage is not available, but is a lot slower. A plan to nearly double satellite bandwidth to 2 Gbps was approved by the Department of Telecommunications, but expansion has been hit by problems like unsuitability of old technology. Approximately 10% of the 1,300 MHz bandwidth that BSNL gets from ISRO is ‘lost in transmission’.
Cost of service
“Low-cost high-speed data services available in mainland India cannot be offered here because bandwidth is procured and maintained at very high cost,” BSNL’s Chief General Manager—A&N Islands, V. Jagadeesan, told The Hindu. Infrastructure overheads, like costly modems, are one limiting factor. The slow inter-island shipping services also add to costs, said Dr. Tripathi.
Not all vessels can call at Car Nicobar, and ferry services are erratic, so it can take a month to move batteries and heavy equipment.
Airtel and Vodafone, the private players in the islands, provide patchy 2G services in urban pockets. Their VSAT-based bandwidth adds up to only about 30-40 Mbps. BSNL is the sole provider of telecoms to the Nicobar islands in the south.
Unlike Car Nicobar, Kamorta and Great Nicobar (which hosts the INS Baaz naval base) manage with 2G. The less populated Katchal and Teressa have only voice service.
On October 31, 2017, BSNL withdrew unlimited download plans enjoyed by its pre-2015 users. Now, its offers start at 2 GB of data for ₹350. But, without good bandwidth, the Andamans remains mostly offline.