Recently, India celebrated 20 years of mobile telephony in the country. Back in 1995, the first mobile telephone call was made between the then chief minister of West Bengal and the union minister of Telecommunications in New Delhi. Over the past two decades, we have managed to successfully get away from the highly restricted landline system imposed by the government-owned companies into the dynamic world of mobile communication. Remember the OYT (Own Your Telephone) and N-OYT schemes by the telephone department and the wait for seven to 10 years to get a landline connection? While we must laud the dramatic transformation of telecommunication set-up in the country, India is still ranked lowest among the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Development Index or the IDI published by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). IDI is the globally accepted indicator for a country’s ICT penetration.
Sample this: India’s IDI ranking is 129, while Russia, Brazil, China and South Africa are ranked 42, 65, 86 and 90 respectively. As a comparison, India’s absolute score is 2.83, while the top 5 countries have a score of over 8.5. Interestingly, eight out of the top 10 countries with best IDI score are in the Europe. Among Asian countries, South Korea is ranked second, followed by Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore at ninth, eleventh and sixteenth positions respectively.
India’s digital journey started picking pace over the past 10-12 years. With the current government’s Digital India initiative, let us hope that India catapults into top ranking over the next decade.
But what needs to be done? The government should take a holistic view and tackle some of the immediate issues plaguing the telecom sector, both in wireless and wireline broadband segments. The call drop issue has been making headlines for the past few months. Surprisingly, India’s telecom regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) report shows that call drop rates are much better than the benchmark in most of the states, including Karnataka, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh for both 2G and 3G services. Looking at the inconsistency between what subscribers experience and what is reported by the network operators/auditors, the TRAI should definitely consider collecting customer perception or “quality of experience”.
Realising the magnitude of the issue, Telecom Minster Ravi Shankar Prasad has asked for a special audit. We hope to see the results soon, however, it depends on how well the operators respond to the results and take corrective actions. The telecos claim that there are not enough mobile towers in the country. India has over 4,00,000 mobile towers and it is estimated that another 5,00,000 towers will be required to solve the call drops problem. The issue with adding towers is tricky, as there is a growing fear of health hazard due to mobile towers.
A recent report suggests that a parliamentary panel has observed that Indians are more “vulnerable and prone” to electromagnetic radiation and hence there is a need for a detailed study of health risk. Indian telecom operators are starved for spectrum. The Indian telcos receive only 15 per cent of the spectrum compared to their peers in other countries.
It is important that the government provides more spectrum to the operators. This will also mean that the government earns more money through auction of spectrum and will keep the subscribers happy with fewer call drops.
Most importantly, considering the huge uptake in data usage (people using mobile phone for accessing internet), we need strict parameters for measuring the Quality of service or QOS for data. Are the Indian subscribers really getting 3G and 4G data rates? The TRAI should proactively drive this issue as well as seek corrective actions from the telcos. Otherwise, we could witness an uproar similar to the call drops issue.
The other issue on net neutrality has been overplayed. The Internet ecosystem is quite complex with so many stakeholders like platform providers, search engine providers, content providers, mobile phone makers and platform providers, all competing for their share. Considering that India’s internet usage has just started growing, we need a mature and a balanced approach in this regard. In fact, the world over, net neutrality is still hotly debated and it will take a while for any sort of direction to emerge.
For creating a digitally literate society in India, we need content to be made available in local languages and more importantly, we need applications and content to address the semi-literate and illiterate population. Most of our cities have some form of e-governance system already working. It may be a good idea to strengthen the existing system and create transparency. Can we get India’s Information and Technology industry to own some of these initiatives as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)?
The other big issue is related to cashless transactions that can bring in transparency and accountability. Why can’t we encourage cashless transactions? Today, despite the ruling by the RBI, credit card payments and online payment often attract additional charges.
Most of the shops, clinics/ hospitals among other institutions discourage customers from using credit cards citing a two per cent additional charge. It is actually the same when making any payment using the internet. Shouldn’t the merchants be held responsible for misguiding and for not following the rules?
The incessantly delayed plan of connecting 2,50,000 village panchayats through the National optical fibre network (NOFN) is a cause of worry. A report states that 67 per cent of the NOFN points are not functional. Although the government has rechristened the NOFN as Bharatnet and the budget for this is expected to be increased threefold to over `70,000 crore, the e-governance programmes cannot be realised until the fibre optic backbone is functional.
Maybe the government should prioritise and get 10 per cent of the village panchayats fully working first. On the line of the Smart City challenge, the government should encourage states to compete for faster completion.
Clearly, all the hype around Digital India will vanish if we do not get the priorities right. Unless we have bi-yearly measurable targets published, closely monitor the progress, punish delays and reward on-time completion, the much-anticipated Digital India dividend could turn into dilemma.
The writer is adviser, Centre for Educational and Social Studies, Bengaluru.