Telcos up in arms over free spectrum to Indian Railways

Railways, DoT on collision course over 700 MHz spectrum. Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio, Vodafone Idea said the Railways should not be permitted to offer commercial services like Wi-fi and voice and video communication.

NEW DELHI: Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio, and Vodafone Idea have in tandem opposed allocation of the premium 700 MHz spectrum to Indian Railways for Wi-Fi and signaling purposes, citing the commercial value of such airwaves and their potential to earn revenue for the government.

The industry has said spectrum allotted to the Railways for captive use should not be utilised for commercial services for passengers (Wi-Fi and internet offerings) as such services should be kept for entities that hold a valid licence.

Reliance Jio said the Railways should not be permitted to offer commercial services like Wi-fi and voice and video communication, without obtaining authorisation under the Unified Licence.

It should obtain spectrum for commercial use via auction like all other interested parties.

“We do not agree with the Indian Railways demand for reserving 15 MHz spectrum in the 700 Mhz spectrum band for LTE (long term evolution) based communication corridor.

“The spectrum in the 700 Mhz band should not be allocated to the Railways for radiocommunication systems between train and trackside (RSTT) due to its commercial use and being a backbone band for 4G-5G services,” Reliance Jio said in its response to the regulatory consultation paper.

Suitable allocation for such captive use should be in the 450-470 MHz spectrum band, it felt.

“The department of telecom (DoT) has rightly noted that considering the limited spectrum available in the 700 MHz band and the fact that this digital dividend spectrum has immense potential for coverage in wide and rural areas, the spectrum for Indian Railways may be explored beyond this band and that the spectrum in the 450-470 MHz seems most suitable for this purpose,” Jio said.

The operator, however, termed as “valid and legitimate”, the Railways’ requirements to provide mission-critical passenger safety services and applications, video surveillance through close circuit cameras in trains, along with video analytics.

“The Railways is a commercial organisation and it can very well take the requisite licences and auction acquired spectrum to offer commercial services like Wi-fi… to its customers under the applicable licence and service terms and conditions,” Jio said.

Vodafone Idea argued that if spectrum from the 700 MHz band was to be reserved for the Indian Railways, there will be insufficient spectrum left for 4G or 5G services (considering that 3-4 service providers will be providing services in each service area).

This, in effect, will jeopardise growth plans of telecom operators.

Hence, spectrum in the 700 MHz band should be allocated and utilised only for IMT (international mobile telecom) services, Vodafone Idea said.

Vodafone Idea further said that spectrum should not be reserved or assigned to the Indian Railways for commercial purposes to meet the communication needs of its passengers.

This, the operator felt, should be served through the telecom service providers’ networks.

Bharti Airtel also felt that spectrum in the 700 MHz band should not be allocated to Indian Railways, and should only be made available to licensed telecom operators via auction.

“Since the 700 MHz band has a huge potential for being used for commercial IMT services and providing improved coverage to the subscribers, it is recommended that any entity desiring to have spectrum in this band should pay the market determined price as determined in auction,” Airtel said.

Airtel said it does not support any provision of internet services by Indian Railways with the use of spectrum assigned for signalling purpose, since this would result in “unfair competition.”

Provision of internet services onboard should be done by facilitating the operators to install their own infrastructure, it pointed out.

“There is around 35 MHz spectrum available across country in the 700 MHz band and if 10 MHz is allotted to railways for free, it would accrue loss to the exchequer,” an official in DoT said. The official, though, added if the Cabinet approves allotment of such spectrum to railways, DoT will have to give it. The telecom industry also doesn’t seem enthused with the idea of any further fragmentation of the 700 MHz spectrum by providing it to the railways, even though it is not for commercial purposes.

“The characteristics of the 700 MHz band are such that it is useful for providing extended coverage areas where deployed, particularly for rural areas. The total spectrum available in this band for access services such as mobile broadband is 90 MHz of which the DoT has already earmarked 20MHz for allocation for use by defence. From the balance should any more spectrum be given for any other government agencies such as railways or PSUs, the balance will be a meagre 30 MHz.

It is also to be understood that the Railways coverage will only be restricted to along railway tracks or in their establishments, whereas this band is particularly useful for larger distances in rural areas well beyond railway network coverage areas.

Allotting any part of this band only for railways will lead to fragmentation of this band as also create interference issues. We believe that auctions should be the mandated means to acquire access spectrum to be used for commercial purposes. Due diligence must be exercised to prevent any fragmentation of this valuable band which will make it near useless for use for provision of mobile broadband services using 4G or 5G services to be provided to a larger cross section of the population, as envisaged in the NDCP 2018,” Rajan S Mathews, DG, Cellular Operators Association of India, said.

Telecom analyst Mahesh Uppal said that while it is fine to provide the spectrum to railways as it is not for commercial purposes, a transparent process should be adopted by the government.

“It is okay if the railways is seeking the spectrum for internal communications and not commercial use. It makes perfect sense to give railways the access to this spectrum for enhancing productivity or safety. After all, they are probably India’s most inclusive infrastructure,” Uppal said. “I believe that the Supreme Court judgment essentially bars the government from giving a precious natural resource like spectrum to commercial entities without a transparent process,” he added.