Building the information superhighway under Digital India will be as historic as the arrival of the rail-road in the Indian subcontinent in 1853.
The hype and fanfare that has accompanied Digital India, has managed to catch the imagination of people unlike any other initiative of recent times by the federal government. The programme´s Twitter handle already has over 300,000 followers; its Facebook page has been liked by over a million people so far.
At nearly 1.1 billion, India has the world´s largest non-Internet user population, McKinsey & Co estimated in an October 2014 report. Although low literacy levels and the struggle to afford Web access are the usual suspects, India´s Internet base has grown 30 per cent in the last decade-and-a-half.
Of the over 200 million Indians that are online today, the majority connect to the World Wide Web through mobile phones. While there is a section that is completely unconnected, there is another which accesses the Net mostly via patchy 2G or 3G networks.
This seemingly incongruous story simultaneously hides a huge growth opportunity. With the government committed to giving a massive push to its vision of a Digital India, the tribe of those online is bound to grow at an overwhelming pace in the not-too-distant future. But this expansion in the user base will have to also be concomitant with a drastic improvement in connectivity.
In the developed world, 20-30 per cent users log on to the Net via mobile devices, with broadband services accounting for the rest. But in India, the figure for people using mobile devices to connect online is 65 per cent or two-thirds of its total online population. This also explains the stiff competition between manufacturers and availability of smartphones at several price points in the country. According to a CISCO survey of 2014, an estimated 650 million smartphones and 19 million tablets will be in use in India by 2019.
According to Arnab Basu, Digital Services Leader at PwC, ´The mobile phone of today is as good as a computer. It is connected to a cloud platform, which in turn is connected to the network and, hence, you can use your mobile to access a host of services.´
Adds Ashwani Jain, COO, Power Grid Corporation of India, ´Today, even an auto-rickshaw driver or a vegetable vendor knows how to use a mobile phone. The only challenge is to make the application software in their language and make it interactive. Interactivity requires the Internet, and the Internet service will be delivered through fibre optic. Everybody will start using the Internet once you create Wi-Fi spots.´
A million kilometres of fibre optical cable were laid in the last three decades. Digital India proposes to lay 700,000 kilometres by 2017. Laying down information superhighway will be as historic an achievement as Sher Shah Suri´s construction of the Grand Trunk Road in the 16th century or introduction of the railroad in the Indian subcontinent in 1853.
However, Digital India can be a game changer only if the project for creating a grid of optical fibre network under BharatNet is successfully accomplished. Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL), which was set up by the previous dispensation for the execution of the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) project, is the custodian of Digital India. It also procures the fibre optic cable for the project through a tendering process.
Avers Jain, ´It´s a challenge, because this very large project covers the entire rural hinterland. Therefore, right of way, clearances and other things have to be worked out in consultation with other agencies.´
Then there are teething troubles. Another contractor informed Infrastructure Today that several gram panchayats are still not on BharatNet even after the laying of the fibre optic cable for the lack of terminal equipment as well as absence of broadband connectivity.
Add to this the challenge of adopting cloud technologies to ensure delivery of services to a billion-strong population.
The Vice President of the Cloud Computing Council of India, Pamela Kumar, provides a very interesting analogy with the telecom sector while analysing the government´s digital push. ´The situation is very much similar to that in telecom in the 1980s. Those days it used to take up to six months to get a phone connection. Because India was using archaic infrastructure, the country was sourcing expensive technologies from a Nortel, Alcatel or Siemens that were designed for the air-conditioned environment of the West. Consequently, the upper-line cost was phenomenally higher. This led us to design our C-Dot exchange for Indian conditions that worked without air-conditioning and in a dusty environment. That helped bring down the price of telecom infrastructure significantly.´
Then came wireless. However, with the entry of this new paradigm the cost benefit went away.
´But luckily for us, the technology costs in China came down. So while we missed the port for building our own infrastructure, we had built an architecture and business model and were able to bring in technology developed elsewhere to scale to 1 billion lines. From 5 million lines in the 1980s, we scaled up to 50 million with C-Dot technology and then scaled it up further to 1 billion with the new paradigm. It is the same thing with cloud IT and private data centres´ technology, which is like the landline technology of those days. The same leap has to happen from the existing data infrastructure model to a cloud model,´ says Kumar.
But the real scope of the Digital India programme goes beyond improving online infrastructure. It is also about positioning India as the global manufacturing hub in a bid to create 100 million new jobs by 2022.
Despite India being a global leader in IT and IT-enabled services (ITeS), a large swathe of the country has remained unaffected by the expansion of this sector. In the past few years, Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) firms have been expanding in smaller towns. However, lack of reliable connectivity is a hindrance. Proposed extension of BharatNet to all village councils is likely to provide the much-awaited boost to the sector.
The example of Sahaj e-village could serve as a case in point. Launched in 2007, this is an initiative by SREI Infrastructure, and works with the objective of promoting sustainable rural-micro enterprises operating on an ICT platform. It is currently India´s largest rural distribution network, delivering products and services relevant to rural India through physical retail outlets at the panchayat level. These outlets are all connected through a state-of-the-art ICT-enabled digital retail network.
Sahaj e-village was launched as a Special Purpose Vehicle to function as a service centre agency under the Common Service Centre (CSC) scheme to reach all government services to the doorstep of each villager. Says Santosh Dash, CEO of Sahaj e-village, ´The slow pace of routing of government-to-citizen (G2C) services emerged as the biggest threat to the CSC scheme as it took great efforts to bring these services smoothly to rural customers. This led to shutting down of many SCAs in due course of time.´ However, Sahaj e-village worked aggressively and weathered the storm to become a successful venture by providing alternative services like banking and insurance at the Sahaj Kendras, even if availing government services were a constraint.
The simple act of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg changing his DP in support of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi´s ´Digital India´ programme during the latter´s September 2015 visit to Silicon Valley, served to globally highlight one of the most ambitious exercises undertaken by a federal government to leverage technology. Unveiled in July 2015 by the Prime Minister after much promotion and a commitment of $18 billion, the country´s leading industrial houses matched the announcement by pledging over $70 billion to improve Internet access and accelerate electronics manufacturing in Asia´s third-largest economy.
For starters, Digital India aims to enhance traditional 256kbps broadband services to 2Mbps compatible infrastructure and connect over 250,000 village councils in a bid to deliver an array of government services. The idea is to both improve citizen-government engagement and provide a much needed fillip to new businesses which require connectivity for remote service delivery.
The three core components of the programme include creation of digital infrastructure, digital delivery of services and digital literacy.
During Prime Minister Modi´s September 2015 visit to Silicon Valley, CEOs of several tech giants lined up to express their interest in Digital India. Facebook will work on developing Wi-Fi hotspots in rural India. Google has committed to provide broadband connectivity at 500 railway stations. Microsoft is engaged in a pilot project in Arinsal village in remote Maharashtra and has proposed its White-Fi technology that utilises unused television spectrum as a low-cost option. Qualcomm announced an investment of $150 million in Indian start-ups. Oracle plans to invest in 20 states and will work on payments and Smart City initiatives. Foxconn has committed an investment of $5bn over the next five years in Maharashtra. This is expected to create 50,000 jobs in the western Indian state. The firm has also commenced assembly of Xiaomi phones in Sri City near Visakhapatnam in AP. US-based chip manufacturer Cricket Semiconductors, has committed $1bn of investment in its plant in Pithampur in Indore, MP. JVs in medical devices, defence and aerospace sectors, though not directly in the area of electronics manufacturing, will either source electronics components locally or invest in their manufacturing.
Journey So Far
Digital India seeks to establish a National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN). Launched in 2011, NOFN was targeted to connect 250,000 village councils through optical fibre network by 2013. With the completion date revised to March 2017, its creation, also dubbed BharatNet, is the prerequisite to realise the programme´s full scope. Some of the basic services such as biometric attendance for Central government offices, the rollout of Wi-Fi in all federal universities and standardisation of government websites, emails, and design process that form part of the e-Kranti services are already in place.
The ´Lost and Found´ portal launched by the Department of Women and Child Development for tracking missing children has saved over 1,500 children from trafficking. The Department of Commerce has digitised the entire process to seek FDI in India. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has put the entire clearance process for new infrastructure projects online. The Department of Labour has improved the process of labour inspection using randomised allotment of units, which will be checked by the inspectors involved, followed by online report filing within 72 hours. So what could be the biggest challenge before the success of Digital India? Says CCCI´s Kumar, ´Creating a model of embracing new technologies, enabling the right ecosystem and having a mindset to take risks are the biggest challenges. We have today everything going in the country in terms of the technical knowhow, emerging investment environment and increase in terms of risk-taking appetite of the people while setting up their own ventures.´ Adds PwC´s Basu, ´India is a very large country and we are resource-deprived in many cases. It is, therefore, very important to have a more inclusive policy, and the only way you can be more inclusive is by using technology, which has to be affordable. The technology has to be easily available and it has to be simple.´