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Disruptive Technology and Public Funding of High Speed Broadband Networks

Getting Regulation Right Blog Aspect
Dr Archana Gulati
Published Feb 22, 2014
Updated Sep 03, 2023
In my posts on the issue of National Broadband Plan and Broadband  Networks, I have consistently cautioned against creating publicly funded monopolies for OFC Networks and reminded readers about the regulatory issues involved in managing our legacy of wire line based incumbents. One of the reasons for avoiding the same is the nature of telecommunications where technology change is the rule.The advent of affordable  and competitively provided mobile services debunked the notion of telecoms as natural monopolies, yet we risk repeating this faulty argument when it comes to high speed broadband. In India, the Public Sector Incumbents BSNL and MTNL have been supported with billions of rupees to survive in a competitive environment. However, not even their dominance in wire line telephony has helped them compete with a nimble private sector. On the other hand, regulatory protection of legacy public investment in their wire line networks has had a negative effect on competition in that segment in the country. The result is very poor broadband penetration.
Today’s Times of India carries an article about a new laser developed by the California Institute of Technology that promises to greatly  outdo the speed of existing OFC cables (that are based on older S-DBF lasers). This sort of disruption should be expected in telecommunications. There could be many more such developments even before the roll out of nation-wide  OFC network projects which is underway in many counties (like India’s NOFN by BBNL) is even completed. What then will be the fate of the sunk (public) investment in these (then) obsolete megalithic OFC networks?
This will inevitably throw up complex regulatory issues such as those described above, with less than optimal results. This brings me back to what I wrote in my posts titled  “Broadband Networks through Infrastructure Sharing” and National Broadband Networks: Regulation, Universal Service, Competition and Monopolies.” We may need to learn from the story about the “Tortoise and the Hare” that we may not win in the long run if in our haste to speed up high speed broadband deployment, we ride roughshod over hard learned lessons about competition and technological neutrality.