Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister for Communications, Electronics & Information Technology and Law & Justice

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has made digitalisation the need of the hour. It has also fuelled the idea of building a self-reliant nation, thereby opening up a plethora of opportunities in the telecom manufacturing space. As a result, expanding India’s digital outreach and transforming the country into a global manufacturing hub for telecom and electronics equipment have emerged as two key areas of interest for the government during 2020. Over the past few months, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister for Communications, Electronics & Information Technology and Law & Justice, has talked about the government’s role in enabling digital transformation and allowing stakeholders to tap opportunities in the indigenous manufacturing space. Edited excerpts from his addresses at various industry events…

Initiatives for broadband expansion

We are expanding the communications footprint of the country. After initiating the very transformative BharatNet programme to ensure that optical fibre reaches every gram panchayat in India, on August 15, 2020, the prime minister announced that we will strive to extend optical fibre connectivity to all 600,000 villages in India over the next 1,000 days. We have also launched a key programme, the National Broadband Mission, to provide broadband access to all villages by 2022. The likely investment under the mission is around Rs 7 trillion, which is to be catalysed largely by the industry. Of this amount, this amount, the government is expected to contribute around 10 per cent, or approximately Rs 700 billion, through the Universal Service Obligation Fund, covering all states in the country.

Connecting the unconnected

The government has been undertaking measures to provide connectivity in the far-flung, difficult border areas of strategic importance so as to ensure better quality of life for the people there. Recently, the prime minister inaugurated a 2,300 km long submarine optical fibre cable (OFC) between Chennai and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands at a cost of Rs 12.24 billion. This will not only create a pool of opportunities for those living in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, but will also strengthen the base for the Digital India and Atmanirbhar Bharat programmes. The work of laying undersea cables has been executed by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited in a record time of less than 24 months. 4G mobile services will get a big boost on these islands due to OFC connectivity, which will allow the delivery of digital services such as tele-education, tele-health, e-governance and tourism.

Some other projects are also being implemented to provide connectivity in remote and difficult areas by the Department of Telecommunications. A tender for providing connectivity to 354 uncovered villages in the strategic, remote and border areas of the country has been finalised and is under implementation in 144 villages of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, and the remaining are in the states of Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. Further, satellite-based digital satellite phone terminals are being provided at 1,347 sites for the army, the border security forces, etc. Of these, 183 sites have already been commissioned, and the rest are in the process.

Covid-19 – A new digital opportunity

The onset of Covid-19 has brought the inclusive character of the Digital India initiative and the far-reaching impact of communication and digital tools into focus. Digital technology, communication tools and IT platforms have proven their extraordinary worth during these challenging times. During the Covid-19 lockdown, when there were no flights, trains or road movement, India remained united through digital technology. Covid-19 created a new opportunity for people to talk, meet, communicate and share virtually through videoconferencing. Today, 85 per cent of India’s IT operations are being managed from home. This has become the new normal.

The extraordinary performance of digital platforms during the crisis has set a new milestone. India’s digital innovations that helped in the fight against Covid-19 include the Aarogya Setu mobile app, a geofencing system for monitoring quarantined patients and the Covid-19 Savdhan bulk messaging system. Using digital innovations such as direct benefit transfers and digital payments, even the weakest sections of society were provided financial relief during the lockdown.

Developing India as a global manufacturing hub

We have always been keen to develop India’s potential to become a major manufacturing hub in the global communications and electronics supply chain. We have taken a number of steps in this regard. We are very keen that India should become one of the top mobile manufacturers in the world, but in a fair and transparent manner, by creating an enabling atmosphere for all stakeholders. We also want India to emerge as a big centre for components, tools, electronic equipment and mobile manufacturing.

Developments under the PLI scheme

We have created a robust production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme. The PLI scheme will herald a new era in mobile phone and electronic components manufacturing. It will also provide a major boost to the prime minister’s Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat initiatives.

The scheme has not only attracted global investment, but has also led to the creation of millions of jobs directly or indirectly. I urge innovators, manufacturers and others to come, explore and tap the extraordinary enabling atmosphere available in India. Through our PLI scheme, we are encouraging innovators and manufacturers to produce in India and export outside, while earning good incentives. I am very happy to share that a large number of foreign companies are already shifting base to India.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has given its approval to 16 eligible applicants under the scheme. Over the next five years, the approved companies under the PLI scheme are expected to lead to a total production of more than Rs 10.5 trillion. Of this, the approved companies under the mobile phone segment have proposed a production of over Rs 9 trillion. Further, the scheme is expected to promote exports significantly. Of the production of Rs 10.5 trillion, around 60 per cent, or around Rs 6.5 trillion, will be contributed by exports.

With the demand for electronics in India expected to grow manyfold by 2025, the PLI scheme and other initiatives to promote electronics manufacturing will help in making India a competitive destination for electronics manufacturing.

Adoption of new technologies

Emerging digital technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), cloud computing and data analytics present a huge opportunity in India. Our ministry, in interaction with the industry, has identified a trillion-dollar opportunity in the digital space. We have also carved out areas where we need to introduce technologies such as AI, ML, deep learning, data analytics, geospatial data analysis, drones, blockchain and 3D printing in a big way. The identified priority sectors are agriculture, health, education, logistics, etc. Training our workforce in these emerging technologies is also important.

Further, we want India to become a big centre for AI. AI should not be monopolised and weaponised; it should lead to the empowerment of ordinary people. We have set up centres of excellence and also framed a robust policy in this regard.

I am confident that new technologies, whether 5G, AI, internet of things or any other innovation, are going to work together to create a favourable ecosystem in India with mobile at the centre, thus creating future opportunities.

Upcoming spectrum auction

Recently, the cabinet approved the auctioning of 2251.25 MHz spectrum, with a total valuation of Rs 3.92 trillion, in March 2021. Airwaves in the 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz, 2300 MHz and 2500 MHz bands will be offered. The spectrum will be offered for a period of 20 years. By winning the right to use spectrum through the auction, incumbent telecom service providers will be able to augment their network capacities, while new players will be able to start services.

Building a 5G ecosystem

We are very keen for India to become 5G ready. To this end, test beds have been created and further provisions will be made soon. We want good innovation in this space. Indians have significant talent and an innovative spirit, which we have all experienced in the past few years. Our start-up movement has become the third biggest in the world. Therefore, we are keen to leverage the strength of Indian human resources and start-ups for innovation, creation and empowerment of the 5G process.

Emerging opportunities

India is poised to become a $1 trillion digital economy in the next five years. Given the government’s push for creating an enabling environment for all stakeholders, we do not have the slightest doubt that the coming years will see India’s robust digital ecosystem maturing to create an enabling ecosystem for both services and manufacturing, resulting in significant business opportunities for one and all.