A broadband highway to development

13-Apr-2015 #Digital India Source: India Inc

by Arnab Mitra

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India initiative is about leveraging India’s skills in the information technology sector to integrate government departments and deliver government services. This will also include delivery mechanisms around subsides to people across a vast country like India, promising to lift people out of poverty, bring new opportunities for the advancement of millions of Indians and provide inclusive development to every one of India’s 1.2 billion citizens.

The $20-billion programme also offers huge opportunities for technology companies across the world. In a nutshell, it proposes to create a broadband highway to connect India’s 250,000 gram panchayats in order to achieve this goal.

Hardware and software companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Cisco, telecom equipment and handset makers such as Microsoft, Samsung, Xiaomi, Huawei, Alcatel and Qualcomm, consultants such as Pricewaterhouse Coopers, KPMG, EY and McKinsey & Co., as well as civil contractors, who will have to build the physical infrastructure such as the nationwide fibre optic network and allied installations and service providers in the healthcare, education and banking are all preparing to cash in on this programme, which, in terms of sheer scale, has never been attempted before.

The initiative, which the government hopes to complete by 2019, envisages net zero imports by 2020 and the setting up of manufacturing clusters that will dovetail with another major Modi initiative, Make in India.

So, the opportunities are huge. But last mile connectivity remains an issue. Laying fibre optic cables to individual homes, especially in rural and remote areas, is not cost effective. Here, Microsoft, Google and Facebook have each offered their expertise to overcome this hurdle.

Bhaskar Pramanik, chairman of Microsoft India, said the company is ready with two pilot projects to harness unused spectrum between TV channels in 200-300 MHz range, which is the property of the state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan, to provide free broadband access.

The advantage: it has a range of about 10 km and can, potentially, provide free internet access to people in remote areas who may not be able to pay for it.

Experts feel this unlicensed technology, which hasn’t been adopted extensively anywhere in the world, can potentially lead to an exponential growth in broadband connectivity in countries such as India.

An international consortium comprising Microsoft, BT, Nokia and BBC has conducted field trials of this technology in Cambridge India and MS India engineers have adapted it for Indian conditions. FB and Google have also offered alternative technologies for last mile connectivity and chances are that the government will finally go for a mix of several options depending on local conditions.

The government of India is also working on fine tuning India’s duty and tax structure to provide incentives for foreign manufacturers of telecom equipment, mobile phones, consumer electronics, medical devices, LED, solar power equipment and defence electronics to incentivise their local manufacturing.

It’s a humungous undertaking. So, is it a pipe-dream or a blueprint to leapfrog across several generations of technology and carry Indians to the very cutting edge of 21st century innovation?

It is an ambitious, even audacious undertaking, but Modi’s track record as chief minister of Gujarat provides room for optimism. If his government can pull it off – and only the foolhardy would risk a wager against that – the Prime Minister will have delivered on his election slogan of “More governance, less government.”

Meanwhile, a $20-billion opportunity beckons the world’s leading tech companies.

Arnab Mitra is a senior journalist based in Delhi. He writes on business and politics.

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