Telecom operators have demanded additional spectrum urgently on a temporary basis from the government, with traffic surging 15-20 per cent from Sunday.
They say such a move will help them cope up with the unprecedented increase in data usage as a result of “work from home” and “self-quarantine” across the country.
A senior executive of a telco that saw a spike in data traffic, said: “We saw a huge spurt of 15-20 per cent in dense areas on Sunday, when there was a call by the Prime Minister to stay home.” Last week, the traffic stood at only 10 per cent, according to feedback given by telcos to the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). In a letter to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), the COAI has demanded additional spectrum for both “access and backhaul microwave” for a short term, and temporarily as they need to augment their capacity to meet the growing demand.
COAI Director General Rajan S Mathews, however, said they were still waiting for a response from the government.
The COAI has also sought expedited permission from the DoT for tower enhancement from states (as they ramp up capacity), extension in minimum roll-out timelines by six months, and consent to go for digital acquisition of new customers instead of physical documentation (will reduce time to on-board customers) — given the sharp rise in new subscribers.
According to BofA Global Research, India’s fixed broadband penetration is only 6 per cent. Thus, bulk of the pressure due to the work-from-home traffic (around 70 per cent of total traffic) is expected to be on the cellular network.
India has only 19 million fixed broadband users compared to 630 million (3G and 4G) users. Analysts say operators like Airtel are not charging for installation or security for new customers of fixed broadband, while ACT has upgraded speed to 300 Mbps at no extra cost. BSNL, meanwhile, is offering free-of-charge broadband for a month to those who have a BSNL landline.
The demand from COAI is valid, considering that the Federal Communications Commission in the US has granted AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular temporary access to more spectrum to enable them to increase their wireless capacity for around 60 days. DoT, which is planning to go for a mega spectrum auction, has no shortage of airwaves in various bands from 700Mhz to 1800Mhz, besides the 5G spectrum that it could release in times of crises.
Mobile networks have been working at 60-65 per cent capacity. However, the COVID-19 impact has sent their traffic up 20 per cent. While the COAI says it still has capacity, a long lockdown of cities and offices could lead to more pressure on the network, and might call for more temporary spectrum capacity.
COAI has already received a positive response from over-the-top platforms, which consume about 30 per cent of their network capacity to use less bandwidth.
Hotstar (300 million customers), Zee5, and Viacom 18-controlled Voot have already committed to use less capacity, and shift customers from high definition to standard definition services, if the need arises.