A little over a year after Mr Narendra Modi took office, we finally hear that a fresh Digital India plan is in the offing. It’s about time, too. The previous administration stumbled through years of failed government efforts to arrogantly build an all-fibre network throughout India’s 638,000 villages, minimal disbursements from India’s Rs 30,000 crore ($5 billion) stockpile of funds held to finance telecom infrastructure development in remote areas, and lack of any visionary policy on how to build the innovation culture so desperately needed to propel India from being an IT hub to becoming a digital centre. Compounded with the disappointment of years of telecom policy lethargy, by the time Mr Modi came to power, the expectations of what Digital India could deliver for the economy were high.
As we await the Digital India plans, it is worth considering how Mr Modi’s way forward can stay simple and smart.
Keep it simple when it comes to network infrastructure
India’s National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) plan has been anything but simple.
An overambitious and typically complex DoT programme, NOFN began life with a mission to connect India’s 638,000 villages with a fibre connection. Looked at from an economic perspective, this was a ridiculous notion which was doomed for failure. So much of the country is difficult to access by fixed infrastructure and so much easier to do with wireless one, and much of the population is not prepared to spend money on ultra-high speed connectivity where a basic and workable internet connection will suffice. The project smacked of centrally planned largesse, and yet, DoT bureaucrats shirked from the possibility of being held accountable later for universal service fund disbursements. Compounded by painfully slow construction progress, NOFN had little to show for itself after several years of going live.
In terms of mad-cap policy initiatives bogged down in the complexity of implementation, NOFN is on a par with Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN). NBN stated boldly that all of Australia would be connected with high-speed fixed broadband, but somebody forgot to tell the Australian policymakers that they weren’t in Switzerland. Australia is several times the size of Western Europe, yet has a population of barely 20 million, many of whom live in isolated communities thousands of kilometres from anywhere. When the current Australian PM, Tony Abbott, came to power two years ago, his advisors could see that NBN was a gold-plated plan that was technology-rigid, rather than an expedient programme which is technology-neutral, using wireless to connect the most remote areas rather than running fibre for hundreds of mile to reach a few households. A revamped NBN plan has shaved AUD 5 billion from the original AUD 36 billion budget by bringing in mobile broadband in many places.
Similarly, someone forgot to tell the Government of India that it isn’t fibre that is needed everywhere, but broadband. Broadband can come in the form of mobile or even satellite, and can be built by the state or provided by the private sector. When Mr Modi sets out a Digital India plan, the first thing he should do is announce a meaningful overhaul to the NOFN which consists of two major design changes: 1) That the plan will be truly technology-neutral, using wireless where possible and focusing on fibre investment where it is really justified; and 2) A willingness to embrace the private sector and reduce the reliance on state investment.
While NOFN has recorded modest achievements, India’s private operators (principally Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, Tata Communications, Reliance Communications, Reliance Jio and Idea) have laid almost 1 million kilometer of fibre in the past few years. But the private players haven’t been able to effectively tap the huge universal service fund, with the help of which they could probably achieve a lot more. Mr Modi’s advisors could do worse than learn from the experience of New Zealand government’s Ultra-Fast Broadband programme, which leaves most of the build of a commonly accessible broadband network to be commissioned by private companies.
Make it smart when it comes to digital
We hear a lot about smart cities in India, and indeed some of the hype may come true one day. We should certainly look forward to when the response time for an ambulance to reach an accident scene drops to below 30 minutes, enabled by location-based GPS technology. Smart digital solutions could mean that the crash victim’s health records are on the paramedic’s hand by the time the ambulance reaches the accident spot on the roadside, and together with time-saving, would save thousands of lives.
However, much of what we’ve heard about building smart solutions for India have been hyped and continue to rely on central planning. When the PM announces a Digital India strategy, it would be good to see the government apply some of the principles behind digital which are emerging elsewhere, for example Singapore. Singapore’s digital programme builds on years of creating an “intelligent” infrastructure, to now focusing on being a smart nation. Singapore’s telecom ministry has created an empowered agency, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), to drive the digital agenda. IDA has a simple organisation structure and clear, focussed initiatives, a government chief information officer who busies himself with conceiving of programmes to drive digital, and cluster strategies to transform selected industries by harnessing digital technology. After years of having a DoT associated with digital and broadband, and yet remain strictly telecom-focussed and complex in its approach, it would be refreshing to see the emergence of an institution in India that drives a truly digital agenda and does so with a simple institutional approach and a genuine orientation to rely on the private sector.