Digital India: The way forward

Although the Digital India initiatives are focused on reducing the digital divide, a multi-pronged strategy is required for India to emerge as a leading digital economy.
Image for representational purpose only.
Image for representational purpose only.

Information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad recently stated that the government had added more services through the UMANG (Unified Mobile Application for New-age Governance) app for smartphones. This app offers 242 services from 57 departments in 12 states. This is unprecedented progress for a government initiative that was launched by PM Narendra Modi six months ago as part of the Digital India push. While the initiatives must be lauded, a recent global survey on Internet/App usage by global research firm Pew Research Centre ranks India lowest amongst the 39 large economies surveyed. Although the Digital India initiatives are focused on reducing the digital divide, a multi-pronged strategy is required for India to emerge as a leading digital economy.

Infrastructure, implementation
The national telecom policy, rechristened as the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP-2018), is expected to be announced shortly after Cabinet approval.

We have seen three national telecom policies—NTP 1994, NTP 1999 and NTP 2012—in the past and the Broadband Policy in 2004. We have struggled when it comes to implementation of the stated objectives in the policies. Free roaming was part of the NTP 2012 objectives, but it has not been fully implemented (Outgoing calls while roaming are still charged).Another example: NTP 2012 stated that broadband Internet should have a minimum download speed of 2 Mbps, while to-date, an Internet speed of 512kbps is considered broadband in India. In comparison, leading economies have already increased the minimum speed to 7-20 Mbps.

While superlative Internet speeds are still a distant dream, the government, regulator TRAI, and telecom firms have failed miserably in providing basic mobile call quality. The call drop menace continues, with no accountability whatsoever, letting down subscribers. The telecom sector has been in financial turmoil with debts rising, thanks to mindless spectrum auctions pushing the telcos into bankruptcy. The hyper-competitive environment has led to some operators going out of business. 

The NDCP-2018 has set a lofty goal of investment of $100 billion in four years. With over `7 lakh crore in debt, how will the telcos mobilize funds? 

Also, the cumulative taxes paid by Indian telcos are the highest in the world. The telcos pay over 32 per cent of their revenue as taxes (including spectrum usage charges, licence fees, GST etc.) to the government, compared to 3-8 per cent in other countries. The government must attempt to reduce the tax burden on the telcos.

Considering the current challenges in the telecom sector, the government could even consider delaying the NDCP-18. Instead, it could prioritize and draw up specific actions for improving the health of the sector before the new policy is introduced.

The PSU angle and delays
Although mobile phones are easily available, the inherent inefficiency in spectrum management and poor network infrastructure have resulted in poor quality of experience for end users. State-owned firms Bharat Sanchar Nigam (BSNL) and MTNL are making losses for several years with no sign of revival. Successive governments have provided free/discounted spectrum to the PSUs with the hope of revival. Despite the preferential treatment, the PSUs have struggled to stay relevant even in rural India, where private players are dominant. Spectrum being a scarce resource, the government should look at improving efficiency in the spectrum held by BSNL/MTNL by allowing private players with the right checks and balances.

For high-speed Internet access, fixed broadband can be an alternative.
BharatNet, a special purpose vehicle envisaged in 2011, was an ambitious plan to connect all the 2,50,000 gram panchayats through a high-speed optical network. Incessant delays meant only 25-30 per cent completion against the target. The Telecom Commission has drawn up revised plans to complete this by March 2019. While we await completion of this network, Reliance is planning to disrupt broadband through an advanced fibre-based solution (1Gbps speed), and aims to be an all-in-one broadband service by encompassing IPTV, landline, video conferencing etc. Reliance Jio’s track record in disrupting mobile communication in the country is well known. BSNL, the current leader in fixed broadband service, will be displaced soon should Reliance taste success in this space.

Spur innovation
Most of the e-governance websites and apps are not intuitive and even e-literate citizens would find it challenging to navigate them. Internet users are exposed to world-class apps and websites and expect a similar experience on government websites. For the rural populace to become an integral part of Digital India, simpler, innovative and intuitive user experiences must be created.

The National Knowledge Network (NKN), a government initiative, can play a key role in bringing students, researchers, academics and the government on a common platform for improving the quality of experience. The government would do well to encourage the NKN to pursue cognitive science programmes that would look at easy ways to communicate and represent information through artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction. Such an initiative will immensely help the semi-literate/illiterate population.

India’s telecom sector has come a long way through the adoption of mobile technologies. However, for India to emerge as a dominant digital economy, the government needs to prioritize achievable targets and ensure the implementation of the initiatives.

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The New Indian Express