Friday, October 2, 2015

Digital India - Now to Work

Despite the PM's interest, much remains to be done.

 |  October 2, 2015

There's a buzz about Digital India again with an Indian PM finally reaching Silicon Valley. So are we close to broadband taking off, or is this just more hype?

The announcements are certainly promising. For instance, that Indian Railways will provide Wi-Fi services at 500 railway stations over the next few years. Google's support tendered by CEO Sundar Pichai offers new hope that this will happen. Other promising announcements include Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's announcement of cloud-based services from India, and connectivity at the village level through TV White Space (unused broadcast spectrum), and Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacob's $150-million fund for start-ups in India.

There have been announcements like these before. For instance, the Railways announced Wi-Fi projects for years, with modest achievements. For details, see "A history of Wi-Fi and Indian Railways from 2006 to Infinity (maybe)".1

What's troubling is that in terms of ground realities, except for TV White Space for broadband, there's little evidence of a systematic approach to problems besetting communications, and changes in policies to solve them. Everyone seems carried away, and this is as true of most of the media and the commentariat as it is of the politicians. But informed, systematic efforts at solutions are absolutely essential to achieve these aspirations.

Take the ingenuous comparisons of Silicon Valley with Bengaluru, with the latter being described as "nearly there". Such election rhetoric from former US Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry is one thing, but our savvy media folk should know better. People who visit Silicon Valley from India, or those who are based there and occasionally visit India, can't be blind to the stark differences. One is a place where the basics related to living and functioning effectively actually work well; the other isn't. One has potholed streets with garbage, decrepit or nonexistent sanitation, and chronic power cuts; the other doesn't. It's as simple as that.

This leads to another observation that's tossed off too easily, about less need for government. Blithe statements that government needs to be reduced, or to get out of the way and let the private sector function, are often made with apparently little understanding of what governments do before getting out of the way. Those essential services in Silicon Valley and elsewhere that function seamlessly and are taken for granted? That's what governments can do. In other words, that is government's responsibility: to provide, apart from security and law and order, the infrastructure services and organisation of communities, markets and financial systems that enable citizens to function effectively and live well. Yes, markets are indeed planned and structured in order to function well.

The data on broadband at the end of 2014 in the Broadband Report 2015 by the ITU and Unesco suggest that India is not doing too well compared with its developing neighbours in Asia (see chart below).2  Our leadership and government need to confront this reality, and apply themselves to reforms to improve conditions. Broadband subscriptions as a percentage of our population trail most countries, and the percentage of individuals using the Internet is at the bottom of the pack, with Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.

To make Digital India a reality, here's what the government needs to do:

  • Trials using TV White Space (TVWS, or unused broadcast spectrum) for broadband are finally under way, after years of struggle to get them going. If they work out, policies must be framed quickly for this spectrum to be bundled with fibre backbones such as BharatNet (the erstwhile National Optic Fibre network), and licensed service providers given access at reasonable cost.
  • Policies need to be formulated with government and operators working together, instead of as adversaries. This will increase the probability of success, as the private sector can be convinced of and contribute to practicable methods that they accept.
  • Policies for sharing spectrum can be extended to other under-used spectrum held by the government and Defence (secondary sharing, as in the USA), and to networks as well. This will facilitate broad, contiguous spectrum bands that are essential to support rising data usage that is affordable. Policies must also enable authorised operators to access all networks, fostering competition while increasing revenue potential and reducing costs. The data on broadband at the end of 2014 in the Broadband Report 2015 by the ITU and Unesco suggest that India is not doing too well compared with its developing neighbours in Asia. Our leadership and government need to confront this reality, and apply themselves to reforms to improve conditions.
  • The TVWS devices are manufactured by relatively small companies abroad with the exception of Huawei, which acquired Neul, one of the pioneers in the UK. Indian innovators can produce such devices locally, but only if they have a supportive ecosystem. That means sufficient continuing orders to create revenues for sustainable profits and cash flows. In a market like India, such orders need government support until new policies are in place and the demand is established. Once that happens, private enterprises can compete.

    For instance, a chip designer start-up in Bangalore with designs for TV and broadband cards using TV White Space has had to scramble to manufacture complete products to bring their prototypes to market. Without sustained buying, they'll languish like other device manufacturers overseas, with episodic sales to narrow markets. That's because developing economies are likely to be bigger markets for these devices than developed economies, but only after policies allow deployment; secondly, there's insufficient support in developed markets. The irony will be if Indian innovators can get only offshore prospects like Huawei as partners or investors.
  • Unremitting government effort in the systematic development of basic infrastructure services (at the primary level, besides communications, there's power, transportation, water and sanitation, basic health and education; at the secondary level: communities, markets and financial systems) will round out the potential for India as a producer economy as well as a large and growing market.

This is the work that now needs to get done: accept the reality of our infrastructure deficiencies, change our spectrum and network sharing policies, plan step-by-step, and execute for results.

Shyam (no space) Ponappa at gmail dot com

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