Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Mobile Broadband Circus

A friend working - rather unhappily - with a telecom company made a number of interesting observations that set me wondering about the telecom industry in India. Before I discuss the industry, let me first list out the observations:
  • CDMA is a better technology than GSM. All the talk about 3G being "the best" for mobile internet access is just a lot of hype. Connection speeds are anyday better on a CDMA network.
  • Tata Docomo is in serious trouble. Having sunk about R28,000 Cr to build its own transmission infrastructrure (each tower costs Rs80L!) it is now witnessing a serious erosion of revenue streams. So much so that it has recently jumped into the GSM bandwagon to try and make some money. Docomo, meanwhile, is left wondering when - or if - it would be able to recoup its investments in the JV.
  • MTS (another JV between Russia's Sistema and Shyam Telecom, India) is using the Tata network to offer high speed wireless internet connections.
It is actually his last point that grabbed my attention. I had purchased an MTS dongle a couple of months back. Manufactured by ZTE-China and branded "MBlaze", the choice was based on the assumption that a new company was less likely to have a congested network, and, hence, higher connection speeds. The salesman also made a strong case against the bigger companies by pointing out that even Vodafone used the MTS network for its data-packages. To drive home the point, he logged on to the Vodafone homepage and showed me the fine print. He was right.

Now my friend tells me that MTS itself is hanging on the Tata network! And like trapeze artists in a circus, the big players seemed to dangling on the smaller players, who in turn, are holding on for dear life to other big players.

When you dig a bit deeper it does make sense and many things fall in place - like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

The Mblaze USB-modems use the CDMA network, which is based on the 800MHz band. The GSM networks, on the other hand, uses the much higher 1800MHz band. Higher frequencies are a lot less efficient in covering distances and many more towers to cover a unit area, and hence, GSM networks are most effective for those living closer to the transmission towers.

Vodafone, Airtel and Idea have all  banded together to share their GSM transmission towers while the CDMA players, Tata and Reliance are on their own. Since CDMA is indeed a better technology - especially for data transmission - the big-three are now trying to offer "Mobile Broadband USB Modems" by tieing up smaller players like MTS who have already obtained spectrum capacity from CDMA players like Tata-Docomo.

So, without owning a single tower, MTS is focusing all its efforts in a marketing blitz and making money on the side by leasing CDMA spectrum to the bigger GSM players. A perfect case of having somebody else's cake and eating it too! :)

Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) Development Group -
GSM World -

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Why Japan's R&D scores over ours

 Article published in the Hindu Businessline, 23 November 2011


Why Japan's R&D scores over ours

Indian industry has shown little interest in overtures from public sector R&D labs.
Indian industry has shown little interest in overtures from public sector R&D labs. 

 Unlike in Japan, India's ivory-tower scientists are wary of working closely with private companies and factory workers.
Institutions dedicated to public research & development (R&D) activity often exist in a world far removed from the rough-and-tumble arena of private enterprise. To some, the very idea of using taxpayers' money to enrich the business class goes against the notions of equity and social justice.
One can, however, learn from the Japanese, who have created interesting institutional mechanisms to deal with this issue. Take the case of Koguchi-san, a young, mid-level scientist and troubleshooting ‘scout', working with the National Institute of Material Sciences (NIMS), a government-funded research lab located in Tsukuba Science City, 60 km north of Tokyo. On most days, you will not see him in his comfortable NIMS office, but on a factory floor elsewhere. Dressed in overalls and boots, he rubs shoulders with workers, technicians and scientists at a private manufacturing firm — usually an SME — trying to understand their technical problems, to make their manufacturing processes more efficient and their products more competitive.
Typically, discussions continue after office hours. Koguchi-san and his counterparts hang out together, share a drink or a game of baseball during the weekends. In the process, they build a camaraderie that is very valuable for their parent organisations. Jointly-funded projects emerging from such friendships have resulted in better alloys, stronger adhesives, superconducting magnets, super-capacitors, dye-sensitised solar cells, and a host of other specialised products that Japan's SMEs supply to the bigger keiretsu conglomerates as well as global markets.


Koguchi-san is a fictitious character. But NIMS is very real. So are the kind of working-level R&D partnerships that exist between Japanese public-funded labs and private-sector companies described above.

NIMS employs nearly 50 Indians. Most of them are post-doctoral fellows from our own premier universities and research institutes, with whom it has inked MoUs, and also offers ‘joint graduate' programmes.
Researchers from India and other countries spend a few years here working on focused research projects. The intellectual property rights (IPRs) resulting from this, of course, belongs to NIMS and the Japanese companies.
What is of interest for us here, though, is not ownership of IPRs or even the Indian connection. It is about public-private partnerships (PPP) aimed at meeting the needs of the domestic and international markets, that can be useful for Indian industry as well.


The Government has a critical role in this process — not by establishing newer institutes and perpetuating a bureaucratic paralysis — but by acting as a facilitator and catalyst. Another fine example to quote here is the case of Hiroden in Hiroshima.
Hiroshima — long before it was devastated by the atomic bomb codenamed ‘Little Boy' — was home to a tramway network run by this company called Hiroden. Their network was among the first utilities to be rebuilt after the attack. The city gradually became famous as a ‘living museum of tramcars'. In 1999, the local manufacturers got a rude shock when Hiroden decided to replace its aging fleet of single-car trams with the latest imported German models.
Manufactured by Siemens, these were the sleek LF-LRT (Low Floor-Light Rail Transit) Combinos. Their modular, barrier-free, interconnected and low-floor design not only had a much bigger capacity, but also made passenger movement easier and faster.
Japanese tram makers had refrained from improving their designs for several reasons till then: Overseas manufacturers held patents for many of the basic technologies and the low domestic demand increased development risks.
This changed in 2000, when a new Barrier-Free Transportation Law was brought in by the federal Government. It provided tax relief and exemptions to compensate for the price difference between conventional cars and the more expensive barrier-free designs.
In 2001, two years after Siemens had won the Hiroden contract, Japan's Ministry of Land Infrastructure and Transport got together a group of eight manufacturers to come out with a 100 per cent Japanese product. It eventually led to three of them — Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kinki Sharyo and Toyo Electric Co. — forming a consortium, JTRAM, for creating an improved tram better suited to Japanese conditions. MHI produced the bogies, brakes and inner/outer riggings; Kinki Sharyo focused on the design, car body, articulations, and driver's cabin; and Toyo took responsibility for the electrical parts and control drive units.
The result was ‘Green Mover Max', a vehicle that had more seats, wider aisles and lower dependence on foreign technology and component-makers than the Siemens Combinos, which, meanwhile, started developing problems.
In 2004, the German company admitted that their body-shells were developing cracks after high mileages (15,000 km-plus). By now, JTRAM was ready and waiting. In 2005, Hiroden accepted the first LF-LRT built entirely in Japan. And today, JTRAM not only dominates the local market, but also gives Siemens a run for its money in the international markets.


In India, the Japanese PPP model — which we have seen at work even in the more recent period — would be looked upon with a mixture of suspicion and disdain. Our scientist-administrators are wary of working closely with private companies or discussing technical problems with mere factory workers. What is the point in soiling one's hands, when promotions are linked to more ‘intellectual' activities like filing patents or publishing papers — preferably in Western journals!
There are, of course, exceptions that are often the result of one-off individual initiatives. The rice miller, Anil Mittal's chance visit to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi turned a promising basmati strain called Pusa-1121 into a commercially-cultivated variety that now earns India more than $1 billion in annual export earnings.
But in many cases, it is industry that has shown little interest in overtures from public sector R&D labs. When the Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute at Durgapur found no takers for its indigenous tractor design in the late 1960s, its own scientists led by Chandra Mohan took the lead to commercialise ‘Swaraj' tractors through Punjab Tractors Ltd.
On the other hand, a CSIR laboratory tried to collaborate with the cashew industry in Kerala, to jointly develop a better technology for mechanical roasting and peeling of raw nuts. But high-level discussions yielded nothing, as the industry was happy working with cheap labour. Today, high labour costs have forced mechanisation and cashew makers import the necessary equipment — from Vietnam!
A top-down approach has been a characteristic of our public-private interactions in R&D. It is high time we created incentives for our middle-level managers to seize the initiative. If, as with Koguchi-san at NIMS or the people at JTRAM, our R&D institutions make concerted efforts to build relationships and to understand the industry's needs, India too, can emerge as a hotbed of innovations.
It's time we stepped out of our institutional silos and stirred an inter-disciplinary cauldron of ideas. Our academics need to step down from their ivory towers, roll-up their sleeves, and empower their younger colleagues to bridge the yawning gap between ‘research' and ‘development' in India. 

(The author is an independent technology transfer consultant.) 

(This article was published on November 23, 2011)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

I Never Knew..

As far as experiences go, is  there anything better than a short, sharp trip? After a quick, week-long visit to Kerala, I am convinced that intense road-travel is the best way to know soak in the contrasts that a place has to offer, without getting getting sucked into a vortex of ennui, nit-picking and petty politics.

This particular trip started with Indigo flight 6E-177 from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram; it included a 650km drive across the length of the state, from Tvm to Kodungallur, Guruvayur and Trissur; a family get-together, and a return flight by the same airline back to Delhi.

All along, I found myself getting surprised time and again, by things I thought would never change, and by questions that never popped up earlier. And it all started at the new airport complex in Delhi.

I never knew the IGI Terminals had transformed so much. A drive down the airport road, past the Tibetan monastery, and suddenly you see that shabby buildings and ugly roundabouts have been swept away and replaced with a swank new building, with better security and much more efficient staff. Even the toilets sensors have little homilies on them! And just in case you feel completely disoriented, all you have to do is to look outside the glass windows to see "Airport Hotel". The relic is still there, perhaps as a reminder of the bad old days.

I had wondered why Indigo flights emerged as top-dog in the Indian skies until I checked in. The answer seems quite straightforward - over the past few years, while the competition has been falunting shorter skirts and pretty faces, Indigo has been hiring smart people and training them well in the art of continuous improvement. Who cares for hot meals and steel cutlery when the flights are handled efficiently and arrive well ahead of schedule!

Back on terra firma, the next big surprise was the highways in Kerala - they have improved so much! Except for a few, relatively short, painful stretches, both the trunk roads - the Main Central and the National Highway - have made road-travel so much more reliable.

And there were the elephant-questions. Until I sat for an hour gawking at the pachyderms, I never knew how leverage their tusks to crack palm fronds, or that they prefer to eat the stem like foot-long pieces of sugarcane, while completely ignoring the green leaves. I noticed this for the first time inside the Guruvayur temple during the Seiveli Puja. It never ceases to amaze me - the sight of five bedecked elephants standing in a confined space, amidst hundreds of people, in close proximity to oil lamps and their long, flickering flames.

Finally, I never knew that Trissur city was built around a huge 'traffic island' hillock, housing the famous Vadakkunathan temple. I always imagined it to be on a flat plain, separated from the Parasumeikkavu temple by the famous "pooram" ground. Even more suprising was the sheer size of the complex with its numerous sub-shrines. Most of these are in bad shape, thanks, no doubt, to the usual suspects - a Dewaswom Board with a damn-care attitude and the local populance which is unable or unwilling to take responsibility for its own heritage.


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The Thrissur Roundabout

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Lakes wedged in between Mukurthi and Silent Valley National Parks

Monday, November 07, 2011

Reliance and a Weak State

I just finished reading Hamish McDonald's acclaimed book, "Ambani & Sons -The Making of the World's Richest Brother's and their Feud". Its an amazing piece of work.

It is surprising that it took an Australian journalist to dig out murky details of corporate India and present it in such an eminently readable form. On the other hand, perhaps this is something only a foreigner could do: cutting through entrenched biases of individuals and holding up a mirror to demolish self-serving myths of an emerging nation; acting like the little boy who shouted, "But the Emperor is naked!"

Yet, the author could hardly be called a neutral observer presenting the facts - he is self-serving too, in his own way. McDonald is meticulous while naming the numerous politicians & bureaucrats who were in cahoots the Ambani's during the period 1977-2009. At the same time, when it comes to folks of his own ilk - journalists - MacDonald is more coy. Instead of naming the Indian journalists who systematically planted stories and subverted the truth for three decades, he repeatedly refers to them as just the "dirty dozen".

In the final analysis, McDonald quotes Gurcharan Das to conclude that -
A large part of the problem might be cultural: a 'bias for thought against action', or that bureaucrats 'value ideas over accomplishment'...The Indian state no longer generates public goods. Instead it creates private benefits for those who control it.

Some of the most important post-1991 reforms succeeded because of the regulatory institutions established by the state. While India needs entrepreneurs like Mukesh Ambani, it also needs a much stronger state to apply rules against any abuse of market power. Businessmen will do what they can get away with...A strong state should devote more resources to relevant and updated policies, better revenue collection and accountability and effective policing of rules, rather than persisting with so much effort in micro-managing affairs. It should strengthen its bureaucracy, not with great powers but with better resources, education and discipline so as to be truly the 'steel framework' that Nehru envisaged, or the rule-keepers prescribed by Hayek.

Das, Gurcharan (2006): The India Model, Foreign Affairs (Jul., 2006), Reprinted in NYT. URL -

Cream Weaver: Review in the Outlook (Oct., 2010) URL -

Review at CNN-Go, URL -