Spectrum sharing in India: Confident baby steps

In a welcome move, the Indian government on August 12 approved the sharing of spectrum between telecom operators in an effort to improve the efficiency of the sector. Exponential growth in consumer demand for wireless services is driving the evolution of wireless networks towards high speed data networks. But with most spectrum already allocated, it is becoming exceedingly difficult to find vacant bands to either deploy new services or to enhance existing ones. As a result, many people complain about severe spectrum shortage in India. However, various measurements have shown that much of the valuable spectrum is idle at any given time and location. This finding suggests that spectrum scarcity is largely due to the inefficient and rigid regulations rather than a physical shortage of spectrum. More specifically, antiquated spectrum policies that do not facilitate sharing are significantly contributing to this shortage.

Laws for outdated technology

The government grants exclusive access to spectrum to operators through licenses. When and where those operators are not transmitting, spectrum sits idle. These policies were motivated by the limitations of 1920s technology, but advancements made since then enable much more spectrum sharing today. Such sharing can unleash innovations in products and services, but India first needs to design and adopt appropriate spectrum policies.

The traditional approach to spectrum management has been inflexible since frequency bands are exclusively licensed to users. Tight limits are set on the transmitted power in order to shield systems from mutual interference at all times. One hundred years ago, this was the only viable option for protecting systems from interference because the transmitters could not adapt their parameters and the receivers had little or no protection from inter-system interference. However, advancements in transceiver design make this policy outdated. Spectrum sharing should be facilitated and encouraged so that telecom operators can achieve higher efficiency and consumers can benefit from better quality products and services. 

Sharing spectrum to maximize use

Spectrum sharing allows for secondary access to licensed spectrum in order to mitigate shortages. Sharing should be carried out in a controlled fashion so that the primary licensee’s operation is not compromised. A secondary user trying to access licensed spectrum should consider the impact of transmission on the reception quality of the primary licensee. Traditionally, the regulator grants permission for secondary access and defines the signalling protocol. However, if a primary licensee has sufficient flexibility, it may choose to grant secondary access for a fee. This would form a secondary market for unused spectrum. A secondary system can only guarantee quality of service if the primary users agree not to interfere in exchange for a fee. Licensees could grant static access to unused spectrum for months or years, much as regulators do today, or grant dynamic access to momentarily idle spectrum for seconds or minutes. In the latter case, secondary devices would make requests as needed and switch to another band if the request is denied.

The new regulations allow firms that have under-utilised capacity to share with other companies. For example, if an operator is not using some of its spectrum, it can for a period of five years offer it to other operators for a fee. This will help firms deal with fragmented holdings and lead to faster speeds and fewer dropped calls. The regulations will also help improve management of spectrum bands; management is difficult when rights for underutilized spectrum can’t be reallocated.

There are several other progressive recommendations which the Department of Telecommunications (Government of India) should pay heed to in order to realize the full potential of telecom. Quite a few of these have been made by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which has demonstrated remarkable capacity to design modern regulations for a critical sector in India. Sharing of spectrum is one step towards realizing the potential of a sector that is fundamental to inclusive growth in India.