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From laggard to leader, if India goes ‘cognitive’

By: Arun Mehta and Robert Horvitz In: Tehelka Date: 19 Feb 2010


In the world of wireless communications, spectrum is the real estate, says Arun Mehta and Robert Horvitz


India manages this valuable resource in a terribly inefficient manner. Much has been written about the shortage of spectrum in India. This isn’t true at all. It’s just that it is allocated in a rigid and inefficient manner. The situation would be comic if it weren’t so tragic.

During the Cold War, non-aligned India acquired radio equipment from both the East and West. But various ­government agencies, finding this approach faulty, set up a coordination committee called Standing Advisory Committee for Frequency Allocation (sacfa), with ­almost three dozen government departments as its members. No transmitter can be deployed without first getting clearance from this.

A device emitting even milliwatts of power is considered a transmitter. Strict compliance with the law would mean getting clearance from all these government departments before even installing a tubelight in your house!

It therefore comes as no surprise that the Indian government generates such low revenue from the radio spectrum. Also there is so much red tape in India that it becomes near impossible to innovate in wireless technology. This is exactly why there is such a big gap between India’s achievements in software and telecommunications, forcing it to rely largely on imports.

Yet in this very inefficiency might also lie an incredible opportunity – one that could turn India into a big player.

This is possible because radios have become so much smarter; so that if suitably designed they can easily share spectrum. The cognitive radio technology can help us to use this spectrum in ways that the developed countries cannot even dream of. Besides it provides us with a neat way to beat the regulatory mess and the so-called shortage in spectrum.

The military has been dragging its feet on its release for civilian use, in part because of the “exclusive” allocations. If they had the option of “interruptible sharing” — so they could take back channels temporarily when they need them, but let others use them otherwise – they might find such ­releases ­easier to accept. Such ­dynamic allocation works fine for cognitive radio, though not for the outdated 2G or 3G mobile phones.

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Smart spectrum use does not require much regulation: merely the enforcement of simple rules ensuring that nobody hogs any part of the ­spectrum indefinitely. It’s possible for modern “cognitive” radios to share spectrum not only with each other, but also with existing users – by simply avoiding slices that others are using. A big advantage of this approach is that the shared spectrum can be made available free of cost, thus making it easier for new technologies to enter the market.

For any new use of spectrum, as in 3G, it is hard to get the existing spectrum user to vacate it. This involves huge cost and delays, as we are currently experiencing. Also, the old approach would only have a chance of working if the private players were made members of sacfa too: the sacfa concept only works if all users of spectrum sit around a table.

Simply by insisting that any new user of spectrum must use smart technology that does not interfere with existing users, large segments of highly underutilised spectrum can be used in new ways, without requiring clearance from sacfa, as happens today with WiFi.

(The writers are global telecom experts)