Amitabh Kant, chief executive officer, NITI Aayog

While the first phase of the telecom revolution was centred on voice, the second phase is being led by the growth of internet subscribers and investments in digital infrastructure. The National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018 underlines the need for a digital ecosystem, in the backdrop of new technologies such as 5G and the internet of things (IoT). At a recent conference on Digital Infrastructure organised by the Broadband India Forum and the Asian Development Bank Institute, Japan, along with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), Amitabh Kant, chief executive officer, NITI Aayog, shared his views on the role of digital infrastructure in transforming the country. Excerpts…

China took about 30 years to lift a very vast segment of its population out of poverty, and it used manufacturing and exports as the key tools to drive this economic growth. Interestingly, what China accomplished in 30 years, America took close to 100 years and Europe around 300 years to achieve. One can only wonder if India will be able to transform at the same rapid pace as China did. I have been travelling around some of the backward districts of India, which we now call “the aspirational districts”, where there are challenges related to education, health, agricultural productivity and financial inclusion. I am convinced that the only way India can bring about this transformation is by leapfrogging digitally.

The government aims to transform India into a trillion dollar digital economy by 2022. And for that, the most important prerequisite is to have a massive digital infrastructure in place. To this end, we need to acknowledge the challenges that we currently face in developing this infrastructure and evaluate those that we might face in the future.

Despite a massive user base, a large population still remains unconnected. And, if we take into consideration the internet penetration level, barely 48 per cent of Indians have access to it, while true broadband has reached only about 33 per cent. So, effectively, a significant part of the country still remains unconnected. The fact that India is greatly challenged when it comes to physical infrastructure has been amply recognised in the recently released NDCP, 2018. This needs to be complemented adequately with next-generation internet or broadband infrastructure.

Proliferation of broadband is at the heart of the NDCP, 2018. Under its objective of Connect India, the policy has accorded the highest priority to the creation of broadband infrastructure, as it is the lifeline asset on which all next-generation services will run. Broadband infrastructure inclu­des all the components of optical fibre, mobile towers, Wi-Fi hot­spots, E and V bands, and satellite com­mu­ni­cations. We will also utilise the opportunities presented by emerging and next-generation technologies such as 5G, AI, IoT, blockchain and cloud computing.

To achieve the mission of digitally transforming India, there is a need for lar­ge investments in all types of digital infrastructure. To achieve the goal of tripling GDP to about $7.5 trillion, digital infrastructure needs to increase threefold in the next five years. And this requires an investment of close to $100 billion as has been elucidated in the NDCP, 2018.

To my mind, India aims to be at the forefront in 5G and commence the roll-out by 2020. There is excitement in the regulatory, industry and academic ecosystems regarding this. But there are formidable handicaps to be overcome first – for ins­tan­ce, the low percentage of fiberised mobile towers in India. While countries like the US and China have over 80 per cent of their towers fiberised, India has only 20-25 per cent. For 5G, 100 per cent of the towers will need to be fiberised. Another aspect is that with 5G the requirement of macro towers will reduce, but that of micro towers and street furniture will rise sharply with attendant wireless fibre and optic fibre connectivity requirements. These will pose fresh roll-out challenges.

India also faces a deficiency in terms of public Wi-Fi hotspots. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has taken a series of measures to deal with this. Evi­dence from international markets indicates a very strong demand for public Wi-Fi networks. Developed markets such as the US and the UK  have almost 30 per cent of their total public data offloaded to public Wi-Fi networks. I think, India too needs a democratisation of public Wi-Fi. Another area of underexploited potential for digital inclusion in India is satellite communication and there is very little realisation that a significant amount of satellite bandwidth is going waste even as rural India remains starved of connectivity. To my mind, satellite technology is quick and economical to deploy in rural areas as compared to terrestrial technologies and there is enormous scope for improvement in this area.

The $100 billion investment, as envisaged under the NDCP, 2018, will spur gr­ow­th in digital infrastructure, which will include expanding internet connectivity to the unserved and underserved segments of population, as well as improving its quality. Only then will digital India become a reality.