COVID-19: Need for improved net infrastructure

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 21-day lockdown notification to ensure social distancing and prevent the spread of the coronavirus has resulted in businesses and educational institutions shutting down. This means employees and students are dependent on the internet to be productive while staying home. With most people connected to the web for entertainment and social networking, the data bandwidth required is huge. Is our internet infrastructure good enough to handle the surge? Before we delve into this, let us understand how people are gearing up for remote working/learning.

While the concept of working from home or home office (a term more popular in Europe) has been around for decades, it has not gained popularity in India, maybe due to lack of trust between the employee and the employer or cultural issues where physical presence is given importance. There are also proven benefits when employees are co-located in an office and it fosters camaraderie amongst the workforce. In sectors like manufacturing, remote working is impossible. But in industries where the physical infrastructure required is a computer and internet connection, remote working can be enabled. It has other positives like reduced traffic and environmental benefits. Perhaps the government should mandate an annual “remote working week”.

Over the past 10 years, the tech landscape has significantly improved for employees to be productive irrespective of their location. There are many software applications for promoting collaborative working. Organisations’ ability to accept and promote remote working calls for a shift in mindset. The present lockdown would test the maturity of organisations and employees alike. In addition, we could witness a shift towards uberisation of the workforce—freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs. Essentially, experts are hired on a need basis for specific tasks, and they mostly work from remote locations. Workforce uberisation is gaining popularity across the world.

In general, firms try to be prepared for emergencies through a business continuity plan . All threats that could disrupt regular business are determined and mock drills conducted to check the plan’s effectiveness. The pandemic has put such plans to test. This is by far the biggest logistical exercise firms have undertaken for enabling employees to work from home. Industry bodies like NASSCOM are actively involved in bringing alignment between industry and government in enabling remote working.

While industries are trying to adapt to the changing situation, universities and educational institutions have started virtual classrooms. The concept of virtual classroom was spearheaded in May 2012 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University with the MOOC (massive open online courses) platform edX, which boasts 2 crore students globally taking over 2,200 courses online. Virtual classrooms are a boon for the educational system in the country, especially during such shutdowns. In fact, this lockdown should provide a trigger for educational institutions to wholeheartedly support virtual classrooms going forward. Maybe some subjects can be taught exclusively online.

While remote learning and remote working are a reality now, the biggest challenge is the speed of internet connectivity across cities and towns. Low/substandard speed internet means a poor experience in downloading/uploading content, and audio/video calls The poor speed can also be attributed to the fact that per household data consumption in cities and towns has increased significantly. Reports suggest video streaming contributes to about 75% of the data consumed on Indian mobile networks. In order to reduce the stress on mobile networks, OTT players like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar among others have agreed to scale down their video streaming from high definition (HD) to standard definition (SD) on mobile networks during the lockdown period. While SD consumes about 0.7GB data per hour, HD and 4K streaming would consume anywhere between 4 and 10 times more than SD. BSNL’s work@home, a one-month free landline broadband connection, is a good initiative to encourage people to shift from mobile to landline broadband.

Even if we ignore the current surge in data consumption as an aberration and compare India’s internet speed with the rest of the world, the picture is not pretty. A recent speed test report ranks India 128th worldwide for mobile broadband performance and 69th for fixed broadband speeds globally. On mobile broadband ranking, countries like South Korea, UAE and Canada have download speeds between 75-94 Mbps; India is the last amongst BRICS nations with 11Mbps. It is interesting that countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal are ranked higher. In fixed line broadband, downlink speeds in India are about 39 Mbps compared to 203 Mbps in Singapore and 103 Mbps in China.

The current situation should serve as a warning for the government and telecom sector. India could have been better prepared had a rapid fibre optic network been deployed as envisioned in the National Digital Communications Policy 2018. Lack of a strong optical fibre network also puts the superfast 5G network plans in jeopardy. The telecom sector’s financial stress due to mounting debts only adds to the woes of telcos and their inability to upgrade their infrastructure. Governments have not been able to reduce the tax and levies on telcos, among the highest in the world.

The internet has become a lifeline for people to be productive during the lockdown. It is certain that remote working and learning will gain more acceptance going forward. While there is no denial that India’s internet access speeds have improved significantly over the past decade, there is huge scope for improvement. The government and telcos should accelerate actions towards ensuring world-class internet speeds so that people can be highly productive working or learning remotely.

―New Indian Express

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