Enabling Digital India for its billion+ people

by rohit on September 3, 2014

A. What’s Digital India
The last fortnight saw the emergence of a new buzzword in the media: “Digital India”. This is the Modi’s government’s name for the initiative to take Internet to the masses, and recently got Cabinet approval. It constitutes one of five key programmes on whose implementation the government is supposedly keen on focus on for now. The other four are financial inclusion (the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna, launched last week already), Swach Bharat Abhiyan (rural sanitation), implementation of the Goods & Services Tax and Make-in-India (local manufacturing-for-export initiative). .

Many of the ideas in Digital India are not new: existing initiatives (the National Telecom Policy 2012 for one) seem to have been combined with a few new ones. Apart from the repackaging, what’s new is this level of prioritization. I don’t remember any Indian government saying the Internet (ok, digital) is one of its topmost priorities. This new one is saying so, so let’s take a closer look.

B. Highlights
The highlights of the Digital India programme, which has a target date of 2019 and which will cost INR 1.13 Trillion or INR113,000 crores (includes projects under implementation), as reported in the Press:

Extending broadband connectivity to all towns and cities in the country and – importantly – to all villages with a population of over 500. These number 370,000 or so of the country’s 593,000 villages. The target is 600 million broadband subscribers by 2019.

The villagers will be serviced via a Community centre or a Common Service Centre in the village, that will provide the e-services given below in each village.

Provision of e-services viz. e-health (telemedicine), e-education (textbooks on a tablet et al), e-governance and e-banking (which ties in with the newly launched financial inclusion scheme).

The e-governance services have lately been in the news. These will consist of a digital identity for every citizen (linked to Aadhar no doubt), availability of all documents and certificates online, as well as online availability of public services.

E-commerce and e-entertainment are other e-services which are foreseen to prosper as incidental outcomes of Digital India.

A Smartphone for every citizen is envisaged.

Digital literacy: Creation of 20 to 40 hour modules in regional languages on digital literacy; these will definitely be video/multimedia, with the objective of educating the common man on what the whole Internet thing is about. To be rolled in partnership with the IT industry, and so far called the National Digital Literacy Mission.

Making available Wifi to 250,000 schools, to all universities in the country as well as enabling 400,000 public wi-fi hotspots for citizens (presumably in select cities, details unavailable)

Domestic manufacture of equipment: Manufacturing clusters are to be set up in Jharkhand, Maharashtra and M.P. for mobile handsets, chips, set top boxes etc. so as to reduce electronics imports to zero by 2020. Currently, electronics imports are at about $100 billion and if left unchecked can exceed oil imports, growing to $400 billion by 2020.

Training 17 million people in Information Technology. These appear to refer to the training of people for jobs in I.T. (details unavailable).

C. Some interesting features
As can be imagined, the plan has a heavy rural skew. Urban India already has reasonable Internet penetration and does not need heavy handholding by the government. The possible exception is the Wifi initiative above, which will benefit urban areas. Having wifi for schools, universities and public hotspots will be great.

Another facet of the Digital India plan is its integral inclusion of mobile. Since much of the last mile Internet access is expected to come from mobile, enabling smartphones for all and enabling the mobile infrastructure is a vital part of enabling Internet access. I could not locate how many of the target 600 million broadband subscriptions are to come from mobile, but earlier plans had this close to 40% , the balance being mainly cable and DSL.

The infrastructure being laid is to have a minimum bandwidth (upload speed) of 2 Mbps, which can go on an on-demand basis to 100 Mbps. Till 2010, broadband was considered as 256 Kbps+, it got redefined a year ago as 512 Kbps+ and will soon be redefined as 2 Mbps+.

D. Digital India: Implementation issues
If Digital India can really happen, it would be awesome. So we need to consider: what are the key issues in its implementation? In this regard, let’s look at three of the above initiatives: broadband, e-services and smartphones.

Extending broadband connectivity is a key bottleneck for Digital India. The target is ambitious, it seeks to create 600 million broadband subscribers by 2019, as against 60.9 million broadband subscribers as of March 2014 (the most recent data available). Note: Of these 60.9 million, 14.9 million are wireline (DSL, cable mainly) and 47 million are mobile (cellphone, dongle etc.).

Extending broadband connectivity is not new, efforts have been on for over a decade. However, unlike the runaway success in telecom subscribers, the growth in number of Internet subscribers has been very slow. Nothing has quite seemed to work.

In 2003, a target of 20 million subscribers was set for 2013, but by this date only half this number was achieved. In 2012, a new broadband initiative was unveiled as part of the National Telecom Policy 2012. This includes a programme to lay a fibre optic Internet backbone, called the National Optic Fibre Network. As per industry regulator TRAI, however, in these two years, only 0.05% of the cable laying target has been met . Though with the new government showing interest, there is a feeling that it can now still be made to happen in another two years.

There is a humungous amount of trenching, ducting & cabling work of hundreds of thousands of km involved, let’s see if this actually gets done. Also, for last mile access, making the ISP business lucrative for cable operators and getting 3G services (which is what mobile broadband means) going, will take some doing.

As regards e-services, it is well recognized that the usage pattern in villages will differ from those of the cities. While in urban areas, e-mail and information search are the two most popular applications, in rural areas, other than e-mail, music and video content are the preferred applications.

In fact, most of the applications presently available on the Internet are in English. As comprehension of English as well as literacy in rural areas is low, video will be a most popular application. E-education and e-health services can be expected to have high video content. Thus, the bandwidth requirement in rural areas will be high due to usage of multimedia.

Other than this, there remains the task of making available content available in Indian languages. As per a 2008 survey by IAMAI-IMRB, there were only around 1,250 websites providing vernacular content. There is also a need for a higher proliferation of vernacular user interface (keyboards, software etc.) to facilitate usage of local language content.

Content creation for the rural masses is a challenge. Who will bell the cat, the government or the private sector? And what will be the killer app? Videos or photos on Facebook ?

While the number of cellphones in use is now 900 million, only a fraction are “smart”. Having a smartphone for every Indian seems possible. Last week, prices crashed below the INR 2K mark, so by 2019, smartphones may well cost just a few hundred rupees each, enabling ownership by all. There are already dozens of manufacturers jostling for space. New open source/ low cost platforms (Firefox, Android One a.k.a Android L) are coming up and many new initiatives and technologies will surely emerge given the size of the market.

Summing up implementation, let’s remember that to succeed with Digital India, we need to D.I.A.L. it.
Internet infrastructure
Apps and
Literacy/languages (digital literacy+ local language content)

It is fascinating to imagine how the Internet market in India will transform itself in the coming years. 5 to 10 years from now it will bear very little resemblance to the Internet market as it exists today.

P.S. There is also a ruling DEITY of the Internet, yes that’s right, a GOD. This is the Department of Electronics and Information Technology, which is the nodal government department for Internet initiatives 🙂 Check them out at deity.gov.in Like everyone else, they now answer to NaMo. So if you want Digital India to happen, chant NaMo Shivah!

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