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Converging technology or service?

A chance meeting with one of the telecom industry veterans sparked off an interesting debate about the current telecom imbroglio in the country. Not with any specific reference to limited mobility through wireless in local loop technology, which incidentally, is giving the cellphone biggies sleepless nights, but to telecom services in particular.

Why do we have piecemeal liberalization in India when we should just open up the gates and let investment, technical expertise, and managerial talents flow in uninhibited? This is the question that seems to be bothering many analysts and well-wishers. Why does the government don the mantle of big brother instead of letting the market dynamics determine the winner or loser? The consumer should get a choice of service and charges, purely depending on what suits his requirements rather than what is good for this industry or that.

Our arguments continued on these lines for a while, before we both realized that what we were actually keen on was a unified license for service providers. Wherein, a single pipe into the consumer's office or home would deliver a host of services such as Internet, entertainment, interactive learning and the like. That would really connote convergence in the true sense.

While the networking industry is all too familiar with converging voice and data on an IP protocol, technology convergence is one thing and service convergence is another. The latter is far more challenging both in terms of technology, implementation and delivery.

An interesting analogy would be distribution of electricity, which is always available in an office or home through electric sockets. You plug in your music system, when you feel like, or run a mixer when you need to, or connect your computer for work. The basic assumption is that electricity is there for you as a utility. You can use it at will and pay for what you have used.

Similarly we need to have bandwidth into the house as a utility. You just plug in your console, which can be a television, a computer or any other device that can give you a choice of voice, audio and video and pay for whatever services you are using. There are enough technologies to make this happen but what we are lacking perhaps is the will to get going.

Having always looked to the western world for some precedence, we are stuck without the so-called `leadership' examples. It is high time India set the trend rather than nurturing a herd mentality. Let us not look too far. What did the Japanese do? If Japan's NTT DoCoMo had waited for a precedent, its wireless data access service Imode would not have been what it is today. Today the rest of the world is gaping with awe at the Imode success story and want to replicate it in their own countries. Do we a have a lesson in this Imode saga?

What we have achieved is an array of telecom services, all right, but we have also been burdened with several billing patterns, differing service rates, poor customer care services and limited penetration. So we have a handful of basic telephone service providers, a set of mobile phone operators offering WAP-enabled services for data, Net access providers and cable television operators-all fighting for the consumer's mind share and pockets. Slowly the Direct-To-Home operators will also jump into the same ring, causing further chaos. More for the consumers as well as policy makers.

With the extensive copper cable already in place, thanks to BSNL and MTNL and a vast network of fiber optic cables being laid out by private players and some government organizations, India is now building its infrastructure base. This is the right time to focus on services with a unified licensing scheme, which would give users a multiple choice, but without any hassles.

To ensure fair play, all existing licensees can upgrade with a fee or however the regulator thinks fit, but upgrade they should and start looking at converging their services for the benefit of the consumer. Check out our supplement on convergence, which you must have got along with this issue, for more food for thought on this subject.

Aparna Achar, achar@vsnl.com

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