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Digital India: Contouring Challenges and Opportunities

Solving underlying challenges to the Digital India initiative can ensure mass adoption of high speed connectivity, bridge the digital divide, and of course open up huge opportunities for the overall ICT ecosystem.

The ambitious Digital India program of the Government of India is fundamentally about ensuring the delivery of basic services to all citizens. Right at the core of this program lies the belief that the deficiencies of our physical infrastructure can be overcome by leveraging the democratization of technology.

However, the delivery of digital services requires presence of a robust communications infrastructure and services ecosystem. This has been one of the fundamental shortcomings that have hindered the progress of Digital India.

The latest TRAI yearly performance report reveals that less than 15 percent of the rural population in India has access to internet. Quite rightly so, therefore, the first three pillars of Digital India, focus on improving the digital connectivity situation in the country.

Given the importance of universal Digital Connectivity, the draft National Digital Communications Policy – 2018 (NDCP ’18), released by the Department of Telecommunication (DoT), seems to recognize Broadband for All by 2022 as the core policy objective. In order to achieve this objective, the policy identifies certain key implementation instruments that include – (i) setting up of a National Broadband Mission, (ii) setting up of a National Fiber Authority, and (iii) establishment of a National Digital Grid.

There is no doubt that the NDCP ’ 18 has got its priorities absolutely right in identifying Broadband for All as its core objective. However, moving forward, in order to enable the policy achieve its stated objectives – there are certain key questions that need to be answered, sooner rather than later –

What would be the mandate and governance mechanism of the National Broadband Mission? The broadband connectivity is facing a bottleneck situation due to a number of reasons that are controlled by multiple stakeholders. For example, the Department of Space owns the mandate for satellite connectivity, which could be one of the key vehicles to provide connectivity in remotest of areas. Similarly, setting up of common ducts for service providers to lay their optical fiber cables is a mandate that lies with the National Highways Authority of India. Will the National Broadband Mission be a cross-department setup to resolve these issues or will it be a division within DoT that would be dedicated for driving broadband proliferation?
What would be the mandate and governance structure of the National Fiber Authority? Expansion of optical fiber footprint in the country remains one of the key hurdles for proliferation of data services. As per industry estimates, more than 70 percent of telecom towers still run on Microwave backhaul which makes delivery of quality data services almost impossible. Taking permissions for Right of Way (RoW) for laying of optical fiber as well as for erecting telecom towers, is hugely fragmented across multiple agencies including local municipalities, state highway authorities, NHAI, Public Works Departments, Railways, and Forests to name a few. How will the National Fiber Authority overcome the challenges of coordinating with these multiple agencies to create a single nationwide mandate? What mechanisms, structures, and legal powers will the Authority be having to enforce the issues pertaining to RoW?
How will the National Digital Grid be established? Will it subsume all existing Government established networks including State Wide Area Networks (SWAN), National Knowledge Network (NKN), fiber grids being established under BharatNet and other networks owned by PSUs such as PGCIL, BSNL, and RailTel? Will the private service providers have a role to play in establishing the National Digital Grid? Who will own this National Digital Grid?

While the NDCP ’18 has done the right thing by implicitly posing these questions for all professional policy makers/influencers, it would be extremely important to get answers to these questions before a definitive implementation mechanism is put in place. As someone once said – “Humans need unanswered questions so that they have a reason to look.”

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