The DoT’s Valiant Fight Against Convergence

Ministers, bureaucrats and real-estate brokers delight in being surrounded by
a bevy of phones. Corporate users don’t have the desk space. Most prefer one
instrument. Technology lets them handle multiple lines, identify callers, and do
whatever is needed.

Yet you’ll often find two large, expensive phones on desktops in India,
especially in multinational or tech companies. One connects you to the outside
PSTN world, through the good old EPABX. The other’s for the CUG: the closed
user group of users on the corporate network, across the country or the world,
connected by an IP-based data and voice network.

And behind these two phones is of course two sets of cable: Ethernet for data
and CUG voice, and the cable for the ‘other’ voice network.

In a converged world where voice, data and video all ride on IP packets, why
this silly barrier? The government is scared of ‘toll bypass’. Instead
calling from Delhi to Mumbai over the public network, you might make that call
‘free’ via your internal IP CUG network all the way to Mumbai, and then
break out into the PSTN from there, depriving the incumbents of a couple of
rupees a minute. Thus they allowed IP telephony over the CUG, but mandated that
the two networks be physically separated!

In 2005, things apparently changed. Service providers such as BSNL and Tata
Indicom were allowed to go ahead and approve specific cases of a single
corporate network, as long as calls were logically separated by the ‘call
manager’. Some companies went ahead with a single network, which also meant
one phone instrument on every desktop. You’d prefix 9 for an external PSTN
line, 8 for a CUG line.

This is no big deal for wireless services. One Reliance user can call another
anywhere in India within her CUG, paying toll only for numbers outside.

Wait, said the DoT, this is too much progress for one year. This will not do!
And it sent a terse directive on March 17: "Logical partitioning of EPABX
for termination of leased lines/PSTN/PLMN networks is not permitted". And
it set the clock back on convergence. (This is not unlike the brilliant idea
that wireless phones must be nailed to the wall: if you carry an FWT outside
your house, you can now go to jail.)

There are very few ways to tackle sheer stupidity, but one of them is to
simply go right ahead and do what it is right. Specifically, I am hoping that
enterprises are going to go ahead with a single network, and perhaps a few will
take the DoT to court for arbitrary reversals and malicious and motivated
actions. This time round, it looks like most of the service providers, even the
incumbents, will be with them, speaking with one (converged) voice.

Prasanto K Roy

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