Finally, India Gets Real About What Constitutes Broadband, As Average Data Speeds See Sharp Uptick

Finally, India Gets Real About What Constitutes Broadband, As Average Data Speeds See Sharp Uptick

by Anand Parthasarathy - Feb 4, 2023 05:15 PM +05:30 IST
Finally, India Gets Real About What Constitutes Broadband, As Average Data Speeds See Sharp UptickBroadband is now defined as 2 MBPS in India
  • After 10 years of underrating broadband speed definition, Indian government increases it four-fold to 2 Mbps.

    Move may lift minimum data speeds offered by service providers.

    Meanwhile, globally acceptable broadband speeds have moved even higher.

    New technologies like 5G-based Fixed Wireless Access and WiFi 6 and 6E routers will see upward spike in consumer data speeds in India.

When it came to planning for providing internet to India’s masses,  successive governments starting two decades ago, have twisted the definition of what constitutes broadband speed to match their low targets.

In 2004, when a broadband policy was formally published for the first time, government defined broadband as 256 kilobits per second (Kbps) – at a time when the word was globally understood to mean a download speed four times faster – that is 1000 Kbps or 1 megabit per second (Mbps).

In January 2008, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) formalised this in a status paper on Broadband.

Almost ten years later, in July 2013 the department of telecommunications  reset the definition of broadband as a minimum speed of 512 Kbps. 

Incredibly, India did not revise this meaning of broadband for another decade, and used this self-servingly low target to claim an unreasonably large number of broadband connections, in the TRAI’s monthly data on fixed and mobile telephone and data networks.

In August 2021, TRAI recommended that the definition of broadband be revised to a more realistic 2 Mbps in download speeds.

And finally this week, by a gazette extraordinary published on 1 February, the definition was reset as follows:

“Broadband is a data connection that is able to support interactive services including Internet access and has the capability of the minimum download speed of 2 Mbps to an individual subscriber from the point of presence (POP) of the service provider intending to provide Broadband service.”

This is closer to what the world would consider an acceptable threshold for availing broadband services – though the ever moving window of internet technology has seen other countries understand broadband to mean an even higher speed.

In 2010, the (US) Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a body similar to TRAI in India, defined broadband in the same ballpark – 1 Mbps  upload and 4 Mbps download.  In 2015, it revised this to 3 Mbps and 25 Mbps respectively, to reflect the higher speeds being offered to customers.

Median Mobile Data Speeds In India

It would appear that in resetting what it understands by broadband after a decade, the telecom department is still veering on the ultra-conservative side – because the reality is rosier than it seems to imagine. 

Average internet access speeds in India have risen sharply in recent months, way above the overly modest definition that the government has set:

A 27 January release by Ookla; a leader in monitoring network connectivity, found in its latest monthly Speedtest Global Index for December 2022, that the median mobile download speed experienced by customers in India was 25.29 Mbps, a sharp increase from 18.26 Mbps, just a month ago.

When it comes to fixed internet connections – like the fibre optic cable-based home WiFi services available in India – the median download speed was even higher --  just over 49 Mbps.

These numbers speak for themselves – and one can see that average data speeds in India are at least as  good as the currently defined acceptable broadband upload speed in the US of 25 Mbps.

According to the latest performance indicators for telecom services for the period up to September 2022; published by TRAI on 3 February, the overwhelming majority -- 815.93 million out of a total 850.95 million internet users in India -- is classified as a broadband subscriber.

This is still based on the earlier definition of broadband as 512 Kbps.  Hopefully these numbers will be more realistic, in future editions which take note of the revised definition.

Two New Technologies

Two new technologies can be expected to further improve the quality of Internet access for Indian customers during 2023:

One, is the availability of new-generation WiFi routers that  provide the enhanced data speeds of the WiFi 6 standard – up to 1.5 Gigabits per second (Gbps), that is 1,500 Mbps.

This increases the number of streams of data that can simultaneously flow from the router to your home devices from 8 to 12 and can bump up the data speeds by up to 40 per cent.

A quick search on e-commerce sites for WiFi home routers reveals multiple 'WiFi 6' options for home buyers in India from Asus, D-Link, Linksys, Netgear, TP-Link, UniFi etc. Prices start at Rs 3,000.  But two or three-unit combos called Mesh Routers which “illuminate” both upstairs and downstairs in a home could cost Rs 24,000 or more.

WiFi 6E Extends Home Router

Meanwhile the industry is shifting to WiFi 6E or Extended. In addition to the two wireless bands that are harnessed by your home WiFi router – 2.4GHz and 5 GHz – a third band – 6 GHz – will now be used as an extension.

Google has brought its WiFi 6E mesh router (cylindrical device on table) to India
Google has brought its WiFi 6E mesh router (cylindrical device on table) to India

This extra band has one advantage: only WiFi 6E devices can use it, which means your data link will not suddenly go wonky because someone at home switched on a microwave oven. The 12 or so channels of information in WiFi 6 are wider in 6E which means heavy applications like downloading an ultra-high definition - 4K or 8K - video will run smoothly.

There are already a few WiFi 6E consumer routers in the Indian market from TP-Link, Linksys, Google, Asus etc, but they are still pricey – in the range of Rs 3,000  -- Rs 70,000.

Fixed Wireless Access

The second technology poised for rollout in 2023 is 5G-based Fixed Wireless Access (FWA). 

 Jio AirFiber will harness 5G to wirelessly bring broadband Internet to homes
Jio AirFiber will harness 5G to wirelessly bring broadband Internet to homes

At its last AGM in August 2022, Reliance previewed its new technology, AirFiber, powering hitherto fibre and wire-fed home and office WiFi data links with wireless 5G – significantly reducing the hassle and logistics of accessing high speed internet services. Airtel has also announced that it will serve this data market with its own 5G offering.

While FWA is unlikely to better the data speeds offered by fibre optic wired systems, it will take home WiFi to places that are currently unserved by  cable-based internet providers – the vast rural hinterland for example.

In one way or another, 2023 looks like being the year when the lay consumer in India should see better, faster, more reliable internet connections at little or no additional cost.

This week’s redefinition of broadband, is the first concrete evidence of better data times to come.

Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.

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