Shyam Ponappa | April 4, 2013
After curbing unproductive expenditure and imports, we must focus on developing communications and energy
Energy for communications
According to a recent statement in Parliament, the annual diesel consumption in 585,000 towers is estimated at over five billion litres. This underscores the need to develop our own approach to the whole range of requirements, from network architecture and organisation to equipment, even as we re-evaluate how to provide countrywide broadband access. The existing paradigms will result in escalating capital cost, operating expenses, and fuel import patterns that are unsustainable.
Our approach to voice and data communications itself has to evolve. In a way, communications services are an enabler and force-multiplier for other infrastructure, providing a framework and facilitation for structured development. Also, if a systematic approach that serves our needs evolves for this sector, it could provide a template for integrated, goal-directed development of other sectors, starting with the verticals to deliver reliable power to users.
This undertaking is especially complex in India because of our fragmented organisational structure, with no apparent co-ordination mechanism. Another aspect of the problem is reflected in this quotation from a McKinsey report: “Delays in building ‘hard’ infrastructure often stem from a lack of ‘soft’ infrastructure, such as educated, skilled workers with project-management capabilities.”* There is also a lack of effective institutions and processes for the organisation and management of human and material resources. For instance, fuels such as coal and oil are under different ministries; power generation and distribution, alternative energy and nuclear energy are all separate ministries, as are the railways that transport coal, while another ministry evaluates the environmental impact. Nothing is going to work if each one acts independently without co-ordinating with the others. It’s as though we have not understood the importance of organisation and co-ordination to achieve results, or are consciously ignoring this in an opportunistic free-for-all.
Finding our own way
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt observed recently that India lagged behind the rest of the world in adopting the Web services model and in harnessing the power of the internet, attributing this to failure to invest in high-speed networks, perhaps through complacency because of a strong IT sector. While this could be interpreted as self-serving, our needs would be very well served if the authorities focused on correcting this through policies that induce private sector investment in networks and service delivery, in data centres, and in terrestrial links to supplement our submarine cables. In communications, as in other sectors, we have to fashion our own way because cut-and-paste solutions won’t work, as the contexts are too different. We must explicitly address developing local data centres; terrestrial links with other countries, if feasible; our own designs for rural broadband including common facilities, with efficient, low-powered elements to the extent possible; use renewable energy; explore small-cell architecture in urban settings; and devise policies that facilitate investment in ubiquitous internet access, including spectrum reforms like allocating more bandwidth for Wi-Fi. It would be in our interest to focus on doing what it takes to achieve top-tier Web services in the next five to 10 years.
shyamponappa at gmail dot com
*“Can India lead the mobile-Internet revolution?”
Laxman Narasimhan, February 2011