Srinagar businessman Basit Ahmad did not have a single fixed-line internet connection in August 2019. Now he has two – one for his home, another for his shop.
Mudasir Khaliq, an information technology professional who runs a software company in Srinagar, had a fixed-line broadband connection at his office. A resident of Pulwama district, he now has one for his home as well.
“With a broadband connection at home as well, it gets easier to work from home,” Khaliq said. “Otherwise, I would have to drive all the way to the office to access high-speed internet.”
The people of Jammu and Kashmir have lived through one of the longest internet shutdowns anywhere in the world. Two years later, they continue to deal with its aftermath.
Both mobile internet and fixed-line connections stopped working in Jammu and Kashmir hours before the Indian Parliament stripped the erstwhile state of its special constitutional status on August 5, 2019. Six months later, the government restored mobile internet at low speeds but fixed-line broadband was revived in the union territory as late as March 2020.
Despite the longer duration of broadband suspension, people are aggressively acquiring fixed-line internet connections. The number of fixed-line connections in Jammu and Kashmir is estimated to have nearly doubled from 80,000 in 2019 to around 1.5 lakh in early 2021.
Internet users like Ahmad and Khaliq say this because mobile internet speeds remain low.
In August 2020, 4G cellular internet services were restored in two districts of Jammu and Kashmir. But 18 districts remain without high-speed mobile internet. On January 23, the union territory administration extended the 4G ban in these districts till February 6.
This prolonged ban on high-speed mobile internet is the key driver for the growth of fixed-line broadband connections, say telecom executives. It is reshaping the telecom market in Jammu and Kashmir – which like, elsewhere in India, has been dominated by mobile internet – and creating opportunities for companies like Reliance-owned Jio, which started its fibre-to-the-home broadband services in September 2019. Within 14 months, Jio had 57,451 wireline subscribers in the union territory, according to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.
In the same period, the government-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited dropped 17,668 subscribers – a trend that mirrors the shrinking subscriber base of the company in the rest of India.
Getting a broadband connection
In August 2020, a 22-year-old student from Srinagar appeared for her university examinations online. Enrolled in a college in Bangalore, she had come back home because of the coronavirus lockdown. Although she had applied for a fixed-line connection, heavy demand meant the telecom operator was unable to cater to her request in time.
As a result, for the first two exams, she had to rely on 2G mobile internet. “It was very patchy,” she recalled. “Sometimes the video streaming would stop and I had to restart the whole thing. I lost much of the time allotted to us due to these glitches.”
Fortunately, the operator installed a broadband connection ahead of her third exam. “It was such a relief,” she said. She wrote the next three exams without any trouble.
“I have forgotten about cellular internet,” she said. “When you go out of home, you just feel there is no internet. Only when you come back to wi-fi, you feel you are using something.”
Basit Ahmad, who runs a readymade garment shop in Srinagar, concurs. “I was fed up with 2G,” he said. “I got two connections [at home and in the shop] because I want to remain connected to high speed internet always.”
The broadband internet connection at his shop has come handy for his business. “Sometimes, a customer has to make an electronic payment and due to slow mobile internet, he can’t do it. I share my broadband password with him so that he can carry out the transaction with ease,” Ahmad said.
A growing market
Any internet connection with a download speed above 512 kilobyte per second is considered a broadband connection, according to the categorisation of internet connections by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.
High-speed mobile internet is counted among broadband connections as per this definition.
At the end of 2019, India had around 662 million broadband subscribers. Of these, only 19 million used fixed-line services, according to an annual report by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. The rest accessed broadband internet through wireless devices like mobile phones and dongles.
Jammu and Kashmir accounted for 59 lakh broadband subscribers in 2019. The number of fixed-line subscribers was a small fraction – just 80,000, according to the Telecom Statistics Report of the Ministry of Communications.
Since then, the number of broadband subscribers in the union territory has nearly doubled to 1.5 lakh, most of whom are fixed-line users, based on informal estimates shared by the executives of the three telecom operators providing broadband services in Jammu and Kashmir – Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, Reliance Jio and Airtel.
The rise of Jio
The telecom company that appears to have had the highest growth in wireline subscribers is Reliance-owned Jio, both publicly available data and commercial numbers informally shared by the executives suggest.
When Jio started its fiber-to-home service in Jammu and Kashmir in September 2019, it had 4,128 subscribers. Within 14 months, in November 2020, the number of subscribers had shot up to 57,451, monthly Telecom Subscription Data of TRAI shows.
In contrast, the government-owned BSNL had 1,13,382 fixed-line subscribers, which dropped to 95,714 subscribers by the end of November 2020 – a drop of 17,668 subscribers.
Across India, BSNL has been struggling to retain subscribers because of staff shortages and delayed 4G services. In Kashmir, a senior official conceded: “The demand is there but we are unable to cater to it.”
An executive of a private telecom operator said: “In Jammu and Kashmir, where the scope for fixed-line broadband internet is huge due to the unpredictability of cellular data, the market will be captured by the operator who is able to expand its connectivity area rapidly.”
He claimed the decision-making in a government-owned company was “slow compared to the private sector” and this was the reason why private companies were emerging as dominant players in Jammu and Kashmir.
‘Won’t give up broadband’
On the street, there is black humour about the changing telecom market. The joke goes: 4G mobile internet will not be restored in Jammu and Kashmir until a private company has captured the market.
But users say even if 4G mobile internet is restored, they won’t give up their fixed-line broadband connections. The logic is plain: Indian authorities shutdown cellular data services more often than broadband internet, they say.
As an example, they point to the suspension of mobile internet services on January 26, Republic Day.
“Mobile internet services were suspended but broadband was still working,” said Aqib Ahmad, who spent more than three months chasing telecom companies to get a high-speed internet connection installed at his home in Bandipora in March last year.
“It is considerations like these that won’t make me give up my broadband connection in future,” he said.