Rahul Singh, Policy Analyst, CUTS International
In today’s exhilarating digital ecosphere, India is the global center of attraction because of its burgeoning market size, digitalization, and digitization initiatives, as well as its efforts in ensuring a holistic and guiding vision to the ICT ecosystem. And this is the sense what one gets while going through the must-anticipated draft policy document titled Digital Communications Policy (DCP) 2018, released for public consultation by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) last week. The DoT must be lauded for its approach toward this document, which provides a long-term roadmap to India’s digital transformation initiatives.
As per the TRAI estimates, 95 percent of the total telecom subscriber base represents the wireless subscribers, which is approximately 980 million active wireless telecom subscribers who are consuming roughly 2 gigabytes of data per month. No wonder India is already clocking the highest mobile data consumption worldwide, with consumers getting access to various kinds of content and services that were unimaginable 5 years ago. The DCP 2018 has precisely captured the essence of this and has laid down a strong mission in three areas – Connect India, Propel India, and Secure India. Let us look at each of these in order to assess the various opportunities for the nation’s ICT ecosystem.
The Rashtriya Broadband Abhiyan (National Broadband Mission) ensures that new broadband and broadcasting technologies such as 5G networks, public wi-fi hotspots, in-flight connectivity, satellite communications, etc. will all converge to enhance the national connectivity and accessibility needs. The biggest beneficiaries of this mission would be the rural segment and the education sector, which is also expected to churn out the country’s next billion internet population. A healthy regulatory and competition framework, coupled with efficient spectrum allocation and harmonization, would provide the much-required thrust and certainty to the ecosystem.
There are two critical areas where this mission should emphasize upon. There is a significant need to improve quality of service (QoS) and quality of experience (QoE) for broadband consumers through an effective and transparent information disclosure mechanism, a common international practice that needs to tie-in to the current regulatory governance of TRAI and DoT. Such a mechanism will ensure that consumers not only have better QoS and QoE, but also have a choice while selecting a broadband service. CUTS International and IIT-Delhi have been working on an initiative since 2017, Consumer Broadband Labels, wherein a transparent information disclosure mechanism has been advocated through a standard information tool that lists down certain parameters that enable consumers to make informed choices.
The other critical area is to refine the telecom sector’s financial health so as to compliment the industry’s efforts toward a better service and experience for consumers. The sector has been one of India’s great success stories, which has off-late been impacted by aggressive price competition and uncertain fiscal obligations. If the sector is expected to deliver on QoS, then it requires sufficient breathing space in order to innovate and streamline processes. While the DCP calls out few long-term measures in the form of light-touch regulations, spectrum pricing, and fiscal incentives on investments, the DoT may also come up with few short-term measures to guide the telecom sector toward a comfortable financial status. One of the best ways for the regulators to support the sector is to consider cost–benefit analysis while working on regulatory and competition policy frameworks, which will provide a huge boost to the industry.
This mission is well-thought and timely as the country braises for technology and innovation engagements through its flagship initiatives such as Digital India, Make in India, and Startup India. Promoting digital financial services and governance, local equipment manufacturing, and providing opportunities to new business models to experiment are some of the many activities that are a result of such initiatives and will surely propel the ICT ecosystem. The nation’s geographical position and strong labor force provide a huge advantage to the ICT sector in order to become a global hub for manufacturing and innovation.
Indigenous products will effectively bring down prices and provide more choices for consumers, provided they comply with adequate quality standards to improve longevity and trust in Made in India equipments and devices. The Compulsory Registration Order (CRO) Standards of 2012 were brought in specifically to address this aspect, and India has been able develop its own standards and labelling of ICT products. While the industry has been able to implement CRO standards, it still finds this regime very tedious. There are high costs and time involved in compliances, and keeping in mind the technological innovations in the ICT domain, the CRO regime struggles to match the industry’s pace, which adds on the burden. Here again, a cost–benefit analysis through a regulatory impact assessment mechanism will help the policymakers and industry to improve the CRO regime’s efficiency and effectiveness.
The nation’s startup and MSME network has also a lot of potential for aggressively expanding the ICT ecosystem’s capability and reach in the domestic as well as international markets. The mission mentions about developing a policy framework for over-the-top (OTT) services, which is a positive step considering the country’s mobile data consumption numbers. Apart from providing video, call, aggregation, and entertainment services, OTT applications also have the capability of providing last mile connectivity to consumers for various e-governance and financial services also, which are the core objectives of policymakers also. The start-up and MSME network, through an efficient national IPR policy, regulatory and competitive policy regime, will boost the OTT segment and help in bringing positive impact on consumers by offering services that are of high-quality and compliment their diverse local content demands.
Data Privacy and Protection (DPP) are the buzzwords worldwide as more and more consumers are creating digital identities and footprints, making privacy and protection a consumer right. The DCP also recognizes this fact as well as other critical elements such as cybersecurity, network preparedness, and security and safety of the country’s citizens. As the world looks upon India when it is developing its data protection framework, it is also important for our citizens to be aware of concerns that the digital economy bring along with it. It is a known fact that the cyberspace is going to be the future battlefield, and India needs to be prepared for it.
The Sri Krishna committee, formed by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), has been actively engaging with stakeholders around the country to develop a DPP framework for Indian citizens to protect their digital identities and empowering them with a redressal mechanism to use their rights. In order to make this more effective, it is necessary to develop long-term and sustainable citizen-friendly awareness campaigns so that the DPP frameworks benefits them. It is also important to actively engage with the industry in this discourse, as they are also an equivalent in the DPP value chain and understand their challenges and concerns. While they collect, host, and store data, it may be assumed that they follow the right ethics and codes to use this responsibly. This holistic approach would ensure that the DPP framework is inclusive and provides adequate support system to all value chain players in the entire digital economy ecosystem.
An extension of this dialogue is data sovereignty, where our government wants to protect its citizens from such potential threats by exploring possibilities with technology companies to build datacenters in India that host consumer-generated data within domestic boundaries. This is all the more important keeping in mind that India already has close to billion telecom subscribers who are generating tons of digital communications data. Datacenters are a huge investment opportunity for India, owing to its diverse topography and location, which can act as a hub for other countries in South Asia and South East Asia regions. In this digital age, India may act as an important player in the datacenter market if it is able to provide regulatory certainty and address on-ground ease of doing business challenges. With all major internet companies having significant business interest in India, this would surely fly off as a great business proposal that will also help these companies to provide high-quality experience to consumers. The DCP 2018 may play a strong facilitator by defining a regulatory regime for the datacenter market.
DCP 2018 – The Key for India’s Digital Future
There is no doubt that India holds a significant position in today’s digital world, and in order to strengthen this position it has designed a holistic and inclusive policy regime that respects all stakeholders in the value chain – government, industry, academia, civil society, individuals, and end consumers. We are all experiencing interesting times today when there is an opportunity to contribute toward building the nation’s digital future and we must harness this opportunity with our responsible intentions. The DCP 2018 acts as an inspiration and motivation that has sparked a lot of positivity and assurance to make India’s ICT ecosystem a force to reckon with. The DoT must kick-start a nation-wide discourse and debate to make the DCP 2018 a robust and enabling policy, which would provide a platform for all stakeholders to come together and cohesively work to connect, propel, and secure India’s digital future.