Fighting The Covid Pandemic, Digitally
The recent warning by the Supreme Court on upholding the definition of adjusted gross revenue (AGR) as defined by the Department of Telecommunications and refusing to admit any self-assessment of the same by the telcos has once again pushed the telcos against the wall. While the apex court went by the executive decision on the calculation of the AGR and the associated lawful compliance by the telcos, it is time to pause and rethink about the broader implications of the same.
With universities, schools, and businesses shutting down as a precautionary measure to prevent spread of coronavirus, digitisation and the Internet have come to the rescue to some extent. Following the footsteps of the large universities such as MIT and Harvard, Indian institutions including IITs and IIITs have started holding virtual classrooms due to suspension of face to face classes.
Enabled by virtual classroom software, faculty members conduct online classes, share presentations, enable question answer sessions for the students, conduct quizzes and exams. Students from their respective homes connect to these classes, enjoy their online camaraderie, build their online social connections, and learn collaboratively. Once pioneered by Coursera and edX for individual personal learning, virtual classrooms as replacement of face to face classes have become reality due to shutdowns.
Almost all the IT companies in Bengaluru, Delhi NCR, Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai have enabled work from home option for their employees. Enabled by online collaboration and project management tools, enterprises have curtailed physical travel of employees and conduct project meetings, software development and deployment from their homes.
However, as a faculty, I am also annoyed by the dismal Internet and telephone connectivity we have in the country. Despite having two fixed line broadband services, six 4G enabled SIMs at home, continuous connectivity at high speeds is still a myth for me. This poor status of our Internet infrastructure is amplified due to exponential demand for capacity thereby outstripping the capacity due to the above events.
Ookla Speed Test reports indicate that India stands at 128 (amongst the listed 140), even behind some of the African nations such as Ethiopia in mobile broadband speed. In fixed line broadband, penetration of which is just about 35 million in the country, downlink speeds in India is about 40 Mbps compared to more than 200 Mbps in Singapore. The Hubei province, in which coronavirus originated, currently experiences about 80 and 30 Mbps in fixed line and mobile broadband speeds respectively, despite the massive drop in speed due to excessive demand for bandwidth starting from January 13, when residents were home quarantined.
A closer look at the 5G map indicates that there are more than 250 locations in the Middle East surpassing the 75 locations in China and 50 in Australia wherein 5G has been deployed, thus taking a lead in digitisation. India is yet to evolve a 5G roadmap for India.
While all the above statistics are related to urban areas such as Bengaluru, connectivity in rural areas are indeed very poor. One of my students who went back to his native village narrated the dismal mobile (narrowband) connectivity, with no fixed line broadband connectivity in the whole area.
The National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) 2018 accorded telecom the status of “critical and essential infrastructure”. There have been many action items in the policy including “Fibre First Initiative”; establishment of National Digital Grid, and so on. However, there is little that has been accomplished since then.
The telecom networks that support voice telephony and broadband data services are critical infrastructure for the country much like electricity, water, sewage and road networks. However, unlike the other infrastructure sectors where government or state-owned enterprises provide services in a monopoly market environment, a major portion of telecom infrastructure in India is built by private firms using their capital in a relatively competitive market.
While competition is expected to reduce prices, and improve quality of service thereby benefiting consumers, we have unfortunately seen only price war in the country leading to accumulated industry loss amounting to thousands of crores.
Inadequate ‘right of way’ policies by municipalities resulting in improper implementation of underground wire ducts; uncoordinated trenching by multiple agencies leading to cable outage and disruptions; inadequate cell site positioning leading to poor coverage even in urban areas, are some of the reasons for poor quality of Internet and voice telephony in the country.
Another important issue that needs to be addressed by the government in this critical journey is lifting the Internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). According to Internetshutdowns.in, Internet access is restricted to 2G on verified SIMs only. It has been more than 200 days since the shutdown was imposed on August 4, 2019. The poor Internet connectivity is a huge barrier for students in the valley to participate in virtual classes. The government should seriously reconsider all forms of Internet shutdown since the benefits of the Internet to the society is all pervasive at this juncture.
It is time that the government takes a broader decision on the health of the telecom industry, thereby moving away from the pecuniary benefits arising out of regulatory levies, to providing high speed uninterrupted broadband services to all. Situations such as the recent virus pandemic is a polite reminder that technologies can potentially enable us to provide economic and business continuity to some extent.
It is the duty of the government to enable the same in the interest of the society at large. Many governments have sanctioned relief packages to sectors that are badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The least the government can do is not to extract disproportionate regulatory levies from the ailing telecom sector that can potentially enable us to fight the pandemic digitally as much as possible!
―The Hindu Business Line
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