Spectrum woes — Ignoring military requirements

Issue No. 4 | February 16-29, 2016 Illustration(s): By SP Guide Pubns
By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army


Developing India requires loads of money and spectrum sure is lot of money. As per media Rs 469,000 crore (US $70 billion) worth upcoming spectrum sale around March 2016 is likely to hit Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, hard even if the sale is partial success, Idea hard, warns brokerage Credit Suisse, the other being the entry of Reliance Jio Infocom. This is likely to be the largest quantum of spectrum to be sold at once, with an estimated value of $60-to-70-billion, and even a partial sale (say: $10-15 billion) could be a serious hit on operator returns, that is not reflected in stock prices.

The government is also expected to auction premium 4G spectrum in the 700 Mhz band in the upcoming airwaves sale, barring a strong recommendation from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) to the contrary, which is unlikely. More so, as the estimated value of this premium 4G spectrum alone is pegged at $45-49 billion, out of the estimated $70 billion gross value of all airwaves, across bands. But what has been most disturbing is the news that the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) is likely to get 150 Mhz spectrum from the Defence. Since the media refers to a harmonization plan between DoT and Defence having been approved by the Cabinet in January 2015, surrender of 150 Mhz spectrum can be taken as certainty.

As per media reports, DoT and the Defence Ministry had signed a memorandum of understanding in 2009 to get some spectrum freed from the latter for commercial mobile telephony services. As part of the MoU, Defence had agreed to vacate 150 Mhz out of 300 Mhz that it holds in the frequency bands ranging from 1700 Mhz to 2000 Mhz. This band includes frequencies that can be used for transmitting 2G, 3G and 4G mobile signals. In return, DoT had committed to set up an exclusive defence network for its communication services. DoT expects to complete Phase I of spectrum harmonization in three months, freeing at least 150 Mhz of airwaves for mobile services in 1700-2000 Mhz band. As the Phase I of spectrum harmonization covers six-seven telecom circles for 1700-2000 Mhz bands, the 150 Mhz quantum of radio waves would be available in those areas initially. This is a grossly negative development that is directly related to the combat capacity of the military and in turn national security. There is no denying that the government wants effective allocation of frequencies to support programs like Digital India, Smart Cities etc, and the having earned Rs 82,000 crores (US$ 13 billion) in March 2015 through spectrum sale, the urge is to make more quick money. But the nature of high mobility of military operations and their logistics support requires wide use with high speed capacities of voice, data and image communications, etc. Control, surveillance, reconnaissance and reporting systems play a vital role in the command and control system. Many of these requirements can be only met with the use of radio systems. The equipment of military communications adds and multiplies the power of forces. That is why the use of radio frequencies’ spectrum is evaluated as one of the preliminary conditions for successful military operations.

Simultaneous to projects like Digital India, Smart Cities etc, the military too is capacity building for Net Centric Warfare (NCW) and going for Digital Military. Neither DoT’s Optical Fibre Cable (OFC) alternate project can support mobile operations nor can DoT ever sustain and maintain the vast alternate OFC required especially in difficult far flung areas and even the hinterland. Moreover the logic that more spectrum would be made available to Defence during war is outright stupid because the need for spectrum to sustain requisite C4I2SR during conventional war is no different from the ongoing hybrid war that we are constantly battling. Moreover, armed forces all over the world have enhanced their spectrum requirements for increased demands of C4I2SR, drones, communication requirements including video coverage. As it is, there is no dedicated continuous band has been allocated for defence, and intermittent bands for civil use are disturbance prone. Moreover, how much did DoT gain from spectrum that Defence surrendered during 2G/ 3G in late 2000 and did DoT not complete the promised alternative on plea of lack of funds? Technology is developing fast and has brought an extended variety of user services. The success of certain applications (mobile radio-telephony, equipment with low power, digital media, various military systems, etc) naturally has caused an increase in the needs for frequencies from the civilian and military sectors. This has often brought civil administration to have tendencies to decrease the amount of frequencies in the interest of military forces. We are also at a disadvantage because of the military having been kept out strategic formulations and our MoD being sans military professionals. It is not difficult to decipher that the 2009 MoU between DoT and Defence referred above was either arbitrary decision of the MoD without military inputs or the military inputs were ignored. Every military force has a goal to ensure and have permanent access to radio frequencies to meet its vital military tasks based on strategies, doctrines and policies. We may not have a national security strategy but the military has its own doctrine. The government would do well to review its decision of taking away 150 Mhz spectrum from Defence by weighing how much money it would make by auctioning these 150 Mhz vis-à-vis the negative impact this would have on combat capacity of the military.