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Reaching digital dividends to outer, rural areas; unleashing India’s demographic potential

Telco service providers have made a salient contribution in driving India’s digital agenda ahead – reaching broadband connectivity to 700-plus districts, enabling 700-plus million smartphone users. Data usage per subs at 12-plus GB per month is amongst the highest in the word and this is delivered at per GB rate that is amongst the lowest globally.

In delivering this, telcos have built an impressive infrastructure – millions of radiating points, connected with high bandwidth backhaul, ability to run/monitor/bill billions of concurrent sessions, and do all of this in a secured and regulatory compliant manner. This is an impressive capability that can catapult us to a new digital era.

We know next in digital is smart homes; smart campuses; smart retail; smart factories; smart hospitals; and blockchain-enabled, application authenticated transactions. This digital lever will enable India to leapfrog its economy. This will create unprecedented economic opportunities for the India’s young demography – 700-plus million population in the working age group. Digital acceleration will help overcome infrastructure roadblocks and unleash economic growth. Moreover, it will reach this growth, more equitably, to the outer, rural areas.

We have a set of questions before us. Will this paradigm shift take several years to mature and fructify? Will the product engineering be concentrated in a few countries/centres? Will the products design be focused toward high value urban users? Alternatively, are there small steps we can take? Can we leverage India’s engineering capability? Can we develop products that enhance productivity of rural enterprises? This article aims to invite discussion around the options, opportunities, and consequent imperatives.

Democratize, build relevant products
We lack the infrastructure and personnel to provide timely health care, more so in outer, rural areas. We are short of trained personnel to run scans and do timely diagnosis. Building an AI based capability to red flag severe cases will be a big help. Similarly, small steps like building an app/platform where farming micro communities may share assets/tools like tractors between them, will help.

Inspiring young engineering students to take up these projects, and enabling them with industry internships, will go a long way. This can be catalyzed via partnerships amongst telcos, academia, and equipment providers. This democratic thinking and enablement, will shape the products that are more relevant to our rural enterprises. This will help develop indigenous IP, increase local components, and thereby help make the solution more affordable.

Don’t wait for the big shot, take small iterative steps

While sophisticated solutions like immersive multi- party real-time gaming, distant surgery via AR/VR, and driverless cars on Indian roads will take time, in the meanwhile maybe relevant small steps can be initiated, e.g. AI to read ECGs and red-flag critical cases and initiate care via remote methods, may be specifically relevant to rural distant areas; video analytics may be used for road/campus surveillance/security/emergency support; drone surveillance in mines, factories, and farms may result in superior yields.

Telcos must step in and leverage their countrywide infrastructure to provide distributed offerings, e.g. offering storage, connectivity, security, monitoring – as a service on a pay-as-you-use basis. Even while dynamic slices take time, we may start with modular, catalogue-enabled provisioning.

To conclude, Indian telcos have done a great job in building broadband connectivity. They can now leverage this asset and unleash digital enablement. The first step would be to offer distributed Edge Cloud at affordable sachet prices. The second would be to catalyze active partnership with academia and equipment providers to initiate relevant quick win projects – these will lead to real products in some cases and valuable learning in other cases. These small steps will one accelerate us and second gain us a higher place in the global digital value chain.

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