Is the last mile holding up broadband in urban India?

Over the last couple of years, it has become increasingly apparent that there is steady and strong push towards Internet connectivity on mobile devices in India. It started with smartphones and a handful of apps like Youtube Facebook and Whatsapp. With the falling price of smartphones (a US $50 smartphone - and there are plenty from no-name brands - offering Android, GPS and 3G) bandwidth usage on mobile devices is going up. However, for a long time, the bandwidth available to homes in Mumbai and elsewhere had not made the rapid strides that occurred in other countries. This appears to have changed in the last few months - at least on paper.

The past

Till late 1998, we had dial-up and a steady 33.6kbps connection for the masses. If you got connected at 56kbps and stayed there, you were lucky. In 2003, when I first came back from USA, DSL was non-existent. The best you could do was ISDN 128 kbps but it was expensive. I had just left a Chicago suburb where I paid US $50 for 1.5 Mbps downlink and 512 kbps uplink connection. In Mumbai, the 128 kbps ISDN line cost a princely US$ 0.20 per hour. Suffice to say, India was far behind USA. I remember reading an article that claimed that the total Internet bandwidth connecting India to the outside world at the time did not exceed 1 Gbps. (Private links connecting call centres in India to USA did not count.) Perhaps that was the reason Internet connectivity in India was so expensive at the time.

A few years later TRAI formulated the broadband policy wherein their initial claim was that a 64 kbps always ON connection was technically a broadband connection. Some time later, that figure was revised to 256 kbps. However, even with the advent of faster technology, Internet connectivity remained expensive and did not take deep root. One paper claimed that this was due to the pricing model adopted by the Indian ISPs.

Around 2009, things changed as the new Government came to power. A spectrum allocation exercise introduced India to 3G and many cellular operators and ISPs announced massive upgradation plans. Smartphones were just entering the Indian consciousness. The bandwidth price situation improved somewhat around 2010 once the Government took initiative and ISPs introduced unlimited plans for speeds of upto 4 Mbps. Note that compared to USA, Internet bandwidth for consumers was still about 10x more expensive in India. Also, the speeds mentioned by the ISPs were never attained. At best, about 50% of the advertised bandwidth could be expected. One strange thing that I noticed was that even at 4 Mbps downlink speed, almost no ISP provided an uplink speed of more than 512 kbps. Most of the plans went only upto a 256 kbps uplink speed. Hence, holding video chats, uploading pictures and videos to the Internet was still impractical in almost every plan.

Technology wise, a number of ISPs decided to go the wireless route to provide Internet connectiviy. Therefore you started seeing wireless antennas and base stations on buildings and apartments if you subscribed to Tata, Sify, Tikona or one of the other local operators. This meant that connections could be established quickly as no cables had to be rolled out (which was usually from the terrace of a nearby building to the terrace of your building). However, this did mean that speeds were low and they were not unlimited plans. None of the ISPs offered more than 4 Mbps downlink and 512 kbps uplink and there was a limit that you could not cross. In areas of dense connections, multiplexing lots of customers meant very poor allocation of bandwidth during late evenings and mornings. By this time, I had given up hope that India would ever get its act together. Which brings me to today and the hope I feel for tomorrow.

The present

The future?