Advocating for a “use-it-or-share-it” spectrum approach to bridge the digital divide in India

On January 10, Mozilla, in partnership with the Centre for Internet and Society, made a submission to TRAI regarding the upcoming 5G spectrum auction. We advocated for a “use-it-or-share-it” approach to spectrum to help small and medium operators ensure connectivity reaches undeserved areas across India.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought home to us all how important affordable, accessible broadband is to modern society.  Internet access has allowed millions to safely carry on their work, their education, their social connections, and more. Its value has multiplied because of this. Yet the unfortunate consequence of this is that those without affordable internet access fall further and further behind by default. They are quite literally invisible to the connected. The inescapable conclusion is that inclusiveness, making sure everyone has affordable access to broadband, must be a policy priority.

Restrictive licensing can serve as a barrier to access

Mozilla is committed to an internet that includes all the peoples of the earth and recognizes that, as internet growth is slowing, achieving a truly inclusive internet will require fresh ideas beyond those that got us this far.  This will require new business models, new technologies, and, in particular, new policies and regulations.  Central to affordable access, particularly in emerging markets, are mobile wireless technologies. However, the ability to deploy mobile wireless networks is dependent on spectrum licenses that guarantee exclusive access to wireless spectrum and which are often auctioned for millions of dollars each. While the value of these licenses can represent a windfall for government treasuries, they have the unfortunate side effect of excluding smaller, often more innovative, operators from participation in the market.  Worse still, the high prices paid for these licenses can operate as a disincentive for the license holder to invest in more sparsely populated, economically underdeveloped regions…exactly where affordable access is most desperately needed.

Sharing spectrum creates opportunity

Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem. Regulators can unlock access to wireless spectrum in regions that are most desperately in need of affordable access by making a subtle but important change to the way that spectrum is licensed. Traditionally spectrum licenses have guaranteed exclusivity of use to a license holder.  By shifting from a guarantee of exclusivity to a guarantee of ‘protection from interference’, the regulator opens the possibility of sharing that spectrum in areas where the primary license holder has no intention of building networks.

This “use-it-or-share-it” approach to spectrum licensing (which we’ve also advocated for in the past) has already been implemented in Mexico, the United States, the U.K, and Germany.  It is currently under consideration in Canada and other countries.  Spectrum sharing can unlock affordable access where it is needed most in disadvantaged rural areas.

While we encourage TRAI to consider this approach in their ongoing deliberations regarding the spectrum auction process in India, we also think that the issue merits a dedicated public consultation to incorporate wider stakeholder input and independent consideration from the 5G rollout process in India. We look forward to engaging with TRAI, the Department of Telecom and other stakeholders on this issue over the coming year.