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Broadband for all

Once Rabindranath Tagore said, “Everything comes to us that belongs to us if we create the capacity to receive it.”

For Indians to take our rightful place among world leaders and developed countries, we must first create the digital infrastructure to support it.

The National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) draft released on May 1st, 2018 aims to do just that. It is a clear strategy for propelling India towards a bright and connected future, elevate us to the state of ‘Broadband for All’ and position us well amongst global leaders.

This is India’s first digital policy, tying together the digital infrastructure, new technology and data security. Previous policies pertained only to telecommunications and this is a giant step in the right direction towards ubiquitous broadband and an all - encompassing strategy focused on consumers, goals and outcomes.

The digital economy has the potential to reach $1 trillion in India by 2025. With over a billion mobile phone users, Indians have eagerly adapted to mobile and internet usage, social media and internet banking throughout the country. Making digital communication more easily accessible is essential to securing India’s place among global leaders.

Spectrum is the life-blood of mobile broadband and much needs to be done in this area.

The draft policy addresses this boldly and comprehensively. Till date, extraction of maximum revenue from spectrum sale has been the norm leading to much unsold spectrum, thus greatly reducing the many-fold higher socioeconomic benefits that are possible from spectrum put to use in networks. For the first time in India’s history, policy is ‘recognizing spectrum as a key natural resource for public benefit to achieve India’s socio economic goals’ and also declares that it would make “adequate spectrum available to be quipped for the new broadband era” through “optimal pricing of spectrum to ensure sustainable and affordable access to digital communications”. This is a fantastic perspective and should now logically and inevitably lead to optimal auction design involving optimal reserve prices for the auctions.

Going further, the draft policy stipulates that the spectrum usage charges should reflect the cost of administering and regulating spectrum, which principle is in line with international best practices. These spectrum-related vital actions together with the rationalised licence fees and levies with input line credit, would remarkably transform the viability of the sector and make $100 billion and more investments will certainly flow in

Interestingly, the policy addresses broadband infrastructure in the very first objective – ‘Connect India’.

Through this, the government plans to provide universal broadband coverage at 50Mbps to every citizen, 1Gbps connectivity to all gram panchayats by 2020 and 10 Gbps by 2022 and enable 100 Mbps broadband on demand to all key developmental institutions, including educational institutions, enable fixed-line broadband access to 50 per cent of all Indian households, achieve ‘unique mobile subscriber density’ of 55 by 2020 and 65 by 2022 and ensure connectivity to all uncovered areas.

All the above are most critical requirements not only since India is currently quite lowly placed in the global broadband rankings but, more importantly, to achieve our vision of ‘Digital India’.

It is well known that India’s population is woefully underserved by the bandwidth available for satisfactory downloads and uploads in broadband usage. The global norm is approximately one public wifi or PW hotspot for every 150 people. The draft NDCP sets clear minimum targets of 5 million PW hotspots by 2020 and 10 million by 2022.

It has also innovatively proposed the broadband initiatives of BharatNet for gram panchayats, GramNet for key rural development institutions, NagarNet of 1 million urban PW hotspots and 2 million rural PW Hotspots, all these being funded from the government’s USO fund, which has a large unused amount.

The government’s plans have raised the broadband exercise to the level of a key mission with the announcement of the ‘National Broadband Mission’ – Rashtriya Broadband Abhiyan for universal broadband access.

If this policy achieves its goals, the positive impact for all Indians will reverberate to all walks of daily life.

The significance of connecting all Indians online is tremendous. The internet is a great equaliser. Digitising the country offers remote locations opportunities to better health, education, entrepreneurship and access to emergency services.

India is one of the biggest market for e-learning. Increased literacy rates, especially among women and children, are known key indicators for the level of development of a nation.

Digitisation can really change the game when it comes to growing the rate of literate and as a result, more empowered women and families throughout the nation. Take for example, ‘Internet Saathi’ – an initiative by Google India and Tata Trusts to increase internet literacy of Indian rural women. Farmers across the country can compare crop prices and learn best practices. Ideally, the government can rollout training initiatives to increase health and safety across the country. India has approximately 10.12 lakh doctors but 74 per cenrt of them cater only to the urban population as per a KPMG report.

With growing broadband internet connections, there is a strong potential to improve the population health services to these regions. Low-cost clinical diagnostic services can be provided with a focus on early intervention and improving health education. This will lead to a greater adoption of telemedicine services.

In India, videos are the best way to communicate, educate and reach our multi-lingual audience. This requires a higher bandwidth and businesses and individual consumers alike will benefit from advanced internet services.

Additionally, ‘Connect India’ also announces a ‘Fibre First Initiative’ that constitutes laying down an efficient network of optical fibre cables throughout the country that can better deliver high-speed internet. This is absolutely the forward-thinking investment that India needs to make in order to ensure our place in the future. The DoT also plans to promote collaboration between service providers and enable duct sharing. This is the sharing of the optical fibre by various service providers in order to regulate safe and required amount of fibre being laid down throughout the country. The government also wishes to enable fibrisation in order to increase 4G/5G adoption through a fibre-to-tower programme.

Currently, only about 20 per cent of our towers are fibre-connected and this seriously limits the quality of data-connectivity. However, increasing the fibrisation of towers to 60 per cent as targeted in the policy can greatly improve data-connectivity. To ensure this initiative maintains a focus on execution, there will now be a national fibre authority overseeing the implementation.

The policy also uniquely addresses a long felt need – satellite communications to be harnessed to connect the unconnected, ubiquitous broadband and serve the common man. Earlier, policies never addressed this great need and satcom remained a sorry stepchild. This time around, the importance of satcom for ‘Digital India’ is taken care of most elaborately.

How does the DoT plan to encourage individual states to focus on these to 0 per cent?  Well, the DoT is introducing ‘Broadband Readiness Index’ for states to attract investments. Tracking the progress made by individual states can also help share best practices in order to grow.

Achieving the goals set out in this policy will greatly benefit and lift India’s status among developed nations. The key to ensuring the success of these golden initiatives will be the many government orders that have to emanate from Sanchar Bhawan to enable implementation on the ground. That will kickstart our progress towards a brighter digital future. As Jeeves would state to Bertie Wooster, “It is a consummation devoutly to be wished, sir!”

(The author is president, Broadband India Forum and chairman at Telecom Sector Committee)