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Opportunities, challenges, and way forward

It is widely acknowledged that India’s mobile telecom industry, which has been evolving into a more diverse digital communications sector, was largely responsible for ushering in the era of liberalization and competition in the country in the 90s. The transformation was wrought by the fledgling new entrants in the face of a powerful incumbent monopoly, although some might opine that there seems to be a role reversal during the last few years.

While the epic journey began more than two decades ago with the advent of mobile voice telephony, the recent years have witnessed the great metamorphosis of the same with widespread and popular uptake of data and internet services, revolutionizing the usage patterns and preferences of the people. The result of this growing relevance of digital services in our lives today is reflected in the fact that there are over 1.12 billion connections in a country of 1.35 billion people presently, with over 675 million broadband users.

Recent findings by an Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Nielsen report indicate that for the first time in India’s history, rural internet connectivity and usage has exceeded that of the urban demographic, an encouraging trend indeed. According to the report, rural India had 227 million active internet users, 10 percent more than urban India’s about 205 million (as of November 2019) – marking an increase of 30 million users since March last year, chiefly owing to affordable data services and devices. This signifies a historic shift in the trend toward equal and inclusive growth for the nation’s populace, bridging the rural/urban digital divide. Moreover, around 71 million children (5–11 years of age), are reported to access the internet using devices of family members, making India the second-largest internet user market in the world with 504 million active internet users who are 5 years old or above. The report also marked an encouraging increase in female internet users at 21 percent, as compared to 9 percent for males, as 26 million new female users went online during the March–November 2019 period, thus addressing the gender gap/balance issue to some extent as well.

While the above news is encouraging, it must be also realized that although the availability of mobile broadband improved by leaps and bounds after the introduction of 4G LTE toward the end of 2016, the overall position on broadband has much room for improvement still. Our 4G speeds are about a quarter of the global norms, and also more than 50 percent of the population do not have access to broadband. Addressing this would give a big boost to our GDP growth rate, and also vastly improve the quality of life of our citizens.

The recent Corona outbreak, a pandemic which has redefined the rules of social as well as business connectivity across the world, has laid bare a number of challenges and hardships to be overcome in these unprecedented conditions. But at the same time, this crisis has also unleashed and demonstrated the immense potential of the digital services in a clearly visible manner. The new work-from-home rules, adopted as a tactical measure to ensure continuity of near-normalcy in our day-to-day operations in the given circumstances, have provided a progressive fillip to Digital India. Going forward, it calls for an essential digital transformation of the entire underlying telecom infrastructure to cultivate it into a strategic and efficient solution for all in the long run.

In this era of digital communications, it is vital to appreciate that digital infrastructure comprises the following main components:

  • Mobile towers and network infrastructure,
  • Fixed-line infrastructure and underground cables/OFC,
  • Satellite communication network,
  • Wi-Fi infrastructure, and
  • Data centers and undersea cables.

Without a balanced development of all the above, India cannot hope to secure its rightful position in the global digital rankings. We also need to appreciate that in comparison with our global peers, our status needs vast improvements with respect to all the items above.

With customer expectations and business models undergoing a significant change in the Corona-impacted environment, the entire ecosystem will now need to adapt to a different mindset. The existing inputs of the critical components of CapEx and spectrum must seek rebalancing in this larger scheme. The taxation issues of the sector have already been accepted as areas for change, and the New National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) offers an array of policy options that need attention to enable this necessary transformation. A brilliant and potent policy, the NDCP 2018, presents workable and effective solutions for all the underlying policy and regulatory challenges constraining our digital progress. Some of the key NDCP provisions, which could help secure our digital future are as follows:

  • Action on improving National Broadband Mission, BharatNet,
  • Optimal spectrum pricing regime,
  • Rationalization of taxes and levies,
  • Promotion of open public Wi-Fi through PDOA/PDOs,
  • Opening up of E and V bands,
  • Sharing of passive and active infra (IP-1),
  • Implementation of SATCOM directives as per NDCP guidelines,
  • Fiber-First Initiative – Setting up of a national authority,
  • Rationalization of RoW guidelines across states,
  • Creating accessibility of ICT to persons with disabilities (PwD) for digital inclusivity,
  • Setting up of 5G networks, both public networks as well as captive facilities for factories, hospitals and healthcare units, educational and research institutions, and the like. The captive networks to have no PSTN interconnection, no retail customers, no circle-wide spectrum, no regular numbering resources, and probably no right-of-way, and
  • Review of the Universal Service Obligations and Rights.

If the Indian industry is to quickly evolve to Industry 4.0 and be globally competitive in digital communications, each of the above dozen items needs to be actioned upon on a war footing.

Meanwhile, the march of technology continues unabated and 5G is seeing rapid uptake in China, USA, and some parts of Europe. Wi-Fi is making a mark, and the recent release of 1200 MHz of spectrum in the 6GHz band by the FCC in USA, has thrown open a host of new options that we must examine and embrace, if found suitable. Nonetheless, India now has the opportunity to prudently establish its own robust applications and business cases for 5G, instead of rushing behind other nations in competition. Until then, the full potential of 4G/LTE and the latest LTE-advanced (4.5G) technologies needs to be harnessed to the optimum, so as to complement our 5G and beyond strategy efficiently. Furthermore, to avoid losing out in the race for a respectable position in manufacturing for the new technologies, India should immediately commence work on 6G standards, to secure a globally relevant and competitive stature.

In the field of digital communications, India has tremendous opportunities before it. The challenges are also quite formidable. But we need to press on in tune with the clarion call of Martin Luther King Jr., “We shall overcome!” 

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