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DEC. 31, 2006
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 BT Special
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Trading With Neighbour
There are no takers for Hu Jintao's bid for a free trade agreement (FTA) with India, but the Chinese President's recent visit has come at a time when Chinese companies are aggressively eyeing opportunities in India. China and India signed a pact on investment promotion and protection. The two sides also set a target of raising the annual volume of their bilateral trade to $40 billion by 2010. An analysis of Hu's visit and the impact on bilateral trade.

The New Prescription
The clinical research industry is poised for big growth. From a negligible share in the late nineties, the market grew to $70 million in 2002 and is now valued at $100-150 million. The industry is set to garner $1-1.5 billion in revenues by 2010, says a McKinsey report. Amidst the euphoria over explosive growth, the sector is reporting a massive dearth of experienced clinical research employees. In other words, scaling up is a challenge.
More Net Specials
Business Today,  December 17, 2006
The Scramble For Spectrum
There are seven mobile phone operators vying for five 3G slots being vacated by the armed forces. So, how should the spectrum be priced? and believe that 'bundle auctions' and subsidies for subsequent roll out are the way to go.

Yahoo India's screaming billboards remind anybody who hasn't woken up to the fact that the internet in India is coming soon to a mobile phone near you. Several concurrent trends suggest that this is not wishful thinking. Data from the second quarter of 2006 indicates that mobile phone sales currently exceed pc sales by a factor of 14! The disparity is greater in the rural areas, home to 71 per cent of the population. In September 2006 alone, more than 6 million new mobile subscribers joined one of the seven licenced operators, taking the mobile user base past the 120 million mark. Contrast this with a total of less than 8 million wireline internet subscribers, suggested by the June 2006 data from TRAI. A pc sold in India isn't always connected to the internet, while all mobile devices have basic data messaging capabilities, and not surprisingly, the same report also suggests increasing congestion levels on mobile networks. Together with a rapidly expanding economy, and an increasingly active consumer society, the elements are ripe for a forthcoming mobile-based internet revolution.

Yet, much of this future depends on some key policy decisions that are currently on the desk of Department of Telecommunications (dot). Foremost, as India gears up to undertake the most ambitious expansion of its mobile infrastructure yet, it is critical that the right companies are allocated the spectrum necessary to: (a) accommodate the projected staggering growth in mobile usage; and (b) roll out the advanced high-speed wireless technologies that will form the backbone for mobile electronic commerce in the near future. While much of the debate is being carried out under the banner of spectrum allocation for high bandwidth "3G" services, its context is larger and the policy implications are wider.

Tata Tele's Ratan Tata: He has put a price of Rs 1,500 crore for 3G spectrum

It is useful to begin by establishing that the spectrum in question, a certain electromagnetic chunk of the air above us, is a scarce resource, and one that belongs to the public at large. Cellular operators need access to this spectrum to carry voice and data over their networks, and companies around the world have paid a range of prices, from zero in countries such as Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, to $87.5 million in Slovenia, all the way up to $34 billion for five licences in the UK. However, it is important to realise that to roll out a new generation of mobile services, spectrum is necessary but not sufficient. The realised value of this public resource and whether the promise of 3G to the common man will be fulfilled also depends on the extent of infrastructure and equipment deployment to follow. The true capacity of 3G depends on not just the frequency of spectrum, but on the extent of massive capital investments in infrastructure (for instance, the density of base stations) that companies choose. Further, better infrastructure implies more bandwidth and greater coverage, which, in turn, provides a richer infrastructure for mobile commerce. This is important because whether the upcoming allocation of spectrum translates into the ability of a Mumbaikar to watch a streamed Bollywood classic on the long commuter train ride home, or the ability of a rural farmer to get customised instructional help on nurturing the latest fruit varietals given his micro-climate, or an enterprise capability to seamlessly string together a mobile video-conference on the fly also depends on subsequent entrepreneurial activity in mobile application and commercial development.

To summarise, the value proposition of 3G lies in making the spectrum available efficiently, ensuring adequate subsequent infrastructure roll-out and providing the right incentives for innovation in providing the content and commerce that will follow.

Allocating 3G Spectrum

Given that we have up to seven operators vying for five 3G slots that are being vacated by the Defence, a well-designed lump-sum fee spectrum auction is an effective way of identifying the most capable companies. Yes, an auction is clearly better than a "beauty contest" in which allocation decisions can often be flawed because of politics or an incomplete understanding of the true capabilities of the contenders. However, it is equally important that we utilise the current state-of-the art in spectrum auction and mechanism design. This includes allowing for bidders to use so called "bundle bids" to express complementarities in their valuations for getting, say, an extended urban area or a certain contiguous region to derive economies of scale. Under such a scheme, bidders could jointly bid for, say, Delhi and Punjab and Haryana, or submit a bid that reflects synergies in the market for Mumbai and Maharashtra. These synergies are natural if one factors in the ability to share marketing and customer service infrastructure and reduce roaming charges to subscribers. While bundle auctions are mathematically complex, significant recent advances have been made in reducing the computational burden of such auctions. For instance, the Adomavicius and Gupta combinatorial auction from the University of Minnesota presents a user-friendly and real-time English auction-like version of such a mechanism.

It is also worth noting that India's mobile market is brutally competitive, and the desire to win will likely cause companies to overbid for their licences. This is risky, because the winning firms may end up saddled with excessive debt and an inability to raise the capital needed to profitably build out their infrastructure. This in turn will hurt the evolution of mobile commerce in the country.

Keeping in mind the need for rapid infrastructure buildout following the allocation of spectrum, we recommend that the licence revenues be utilised to subsidise the future deployment of infrastructure. This can be achieved by providing the winning firms infrastructure buildout subsidies that are proportionate to their winning bids and their subsequent on-the-ground activity. This will favour those companies that have the desire, capability, capital and plans to deploy the best infrastructure possible over ones who bid a lot for spectrum and then don't build out sufficiently. True, this could inflate spectrum bids, since companies will adjust for getting back some of their bid as a subsidy. But this is not necessarily a bad thing, because it aligns private and social incentives, by committing the winning companies to putting in future infrastructure. The key idea is that once the spectrum is won, the cost of winning the bid is sunk, and the subsidy gives companies steeper returns from infrastructure deployment, which increases their incentive to do so, and accelerates both the pace and quality of the backbone for mobile ecommerce.

Will the Indian Mobile Net be Neutral?

Mobile mania: Wireless telephony is all the rage

In case you are wondering why the subsidy should be given to the operators and not, say, to the future content and commerce providers, you are onto something fundamental. A passionate debate along similar lines is now under way in the US, under the banner of "net neutrality". Should an ISP be allowed to charge you higher rates for visiting Google rather than Yahoo? Is it in the spirit of the net to start looking inside data packets to ascertain where a packet is going, or what application it belongs to? Should a VOIP packet at a given router be preferred over a www packet, or priced differently? Should a minority inner-city neighbourhood be given the proverbial bypass on the information superhighway?

Once the spectrum is won, and sufficient infrastructure is put in place, it is reasonable to assume that carriers will need to do what they can to recoup their investment and maximise their rate of return. They will be tempted to translate their control over the channel into discriminating in favour of content providers who are either owned by them, or who pay them better licencing fees in exchange for access. This reduces the incentives of independent content providers to innovate, because of what economists call a threat of "holdup", and a fear that they will not get enough returns on their innovation because the infrastructure provider will extract disproportionate economic rents. A similar story played out for a long time in the past with long distance telephony in the US, where the local access provider charged the long-distance providers a hefty percentage per minute. Currently, the wireline Net is neutral in the US, and the debate isn't likely to end soon. The key lesson for us in India is that we have to be careful not to commit to policy that gives the infrastructure owners too much power, since they could strangle future innovation in content, commerce and application development. But yet, they have to have enough skin in the game to feel comfortable spending billions on the spectrum and infrastructure so that the content and commerce emerges.

All told, there is a delicate balance to be struck, one that calls for a national debate and the use of global thought leadership. The future of e-commerce in India rests on it.

(Ravi Bapna is faculty member at the Indian School of Business and is the Executive Director of the Centre for it and the Networked Economy. Arun Sundararajan is a faculty member at NYU's Stern School of Business and Director of the IT Economics track at NYU's Centre for Digital Economy Research)

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