Anshu Prakash, secretary (telecom), DoT, Ministry of Communications, and chairman, Digital Communications Commission

The Covid-19 pandemic has re-emphasised the role that the telecom sector can play in facilitating digital mobility, which has emerged as an enabler of social, economic and informational growth. In the years to come, digitalisation can prove to be a veritable game changer for empowering citizens, while the digital economy can emerge as a key driver of socio-economic growth in the country. Over the past few months, Anshu Prakash, secretary (telecom), Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Ministry of Communications, and chairman, Digital Communications Commission, has talked extensively about India’s digital transformation journey and the steps that need to be taken to promote digital inclusion. Most recently, he spoke at the curtain-raiser of the fourth edition of the India Mobile Congress (IMC), which will be held virtually from December 8 to December 10, 2020. The virtual event is being organised jointly by DoT and the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). The theme for this year is “Inclusive Innovation – Smart, Secure, Sustainable”. Excerpts from his recent addresses at various industry events…

India’s exemplary telecom journey

In India’s two-and-a-half-decade-long journey of mobile telephony, the country has witnessed phenomenal growth, the adoption of new technologies, and the penetration and proliferation of mobile services across its length and breadth. Mobile telephony has become central to India’s development story.

Mobile phones have become both vital and central to our daily lives. However, the very use of phones has changed in the past 25 years. From just being an alternative to fixed line voice communication, mobile phones have now become the backbone for delivery of e-governance, e-commerce and value-added services, and, most importantly, for the empowerment of citizens. Today, mobile phones are, without doubt, a necessity. Access to a mobile phone and wireless coverage are considered a basic requirement along with other essentials such as water, food and fresh air. The internet and broadband revolution ride on telecommunication networks, with smartphones being our link to the outside world.

Opportunities in a digital world

The digital world offers many applications that help us in some way or the other, whether it is online education or telemedicine and consultation. Now, in Covid times, we see consultations happening over the telephone. Doctors see you via video call and prescribe medicines. Consultations no longer require physical meetings. Further, many of our students are studying online. The digital world also offers applications in the fields of agriculture, disaster management, public safety, etc. Companies active in the digital connectivity ecosystem have ensured that telecom services and connectivity reach the poor and the underprivileged.

Digital mobility is now emerging as an enabler of multiple other kinds of mobility – social, economic and informational. The telecom sector is raring to provide users the latest technology, which will not only revolutionise the way people communicate but also contribute to the economic growth and development of the nation.

We must recognise and applaud the stellar role played by the telecommunications sector in keeping India connected during the lockdown and the restrictions necessitated by the country’s fight against Covid-19. Telecommunication networks enabled each one of us to remain in touch with our friends and relatives. In the absence of connectivity through flights, trains and road transport, it was telecom services that kept us all connected. Healthcare workers and doctors, law enforcement agencies, essential services, and government authorities were all able to deliver their services effectively due to voice, data and video connectivity, enabled by the telecommunication networks. Despite the surge in data consumption, I am happy to note that Indian telecommunication networks did not fail us even once during this period.

Challenges continue

While we have reason to be proud of the success of mobile telecommunications over the years, we must also realise that the sector is facing several challenges. Telecom is a capital-intensive sector and requires continuous investment in the maintenance and renewal of networks as well as in the adoption of new technology. This, in turn, entails capital infusion. India also requires a larger network of wireline communication and wireline broadband infrastructure. Tower density has to be enhanced significantly. Fibre use per capita must increase, and more and more towers need to be fiberised. Fibre-to-the-home connections and internet leased line communication need to be proliferated across the country.

Rural areas, which have shown a huge appetite for data consumption, require better telecommunication connectivity. There should not be, and cannot be, a digital divide between regions, between urban and rural areas, and between haves and have-nots. For this, right-of-way issues need resolution. Further, providing broadband to all, enhancing the contribution of digital communication to GDP and employment, and increasing our ranking on the global information and communication technology development index are some of the challenges we need to address.

IMC 2020 – Inclusive innovation

The theme of IMC 2020 is very fascinating – “Inclusive Innovation – Smart, Secure, Sustainable”. Each word has a lot of meaning. “Inclusive” means that all growth, especially in the digital world, must be inclusive, in terms of benefiting all sections of society and all regions of the country, and developing a product that has immense social utility. Good quality of service for mobile networks is also, of course, very important and we must work towards it.

The “smart, sustainable and secure” part is also important. We all understand what “smart” means. “Security”, too, in all its definitions and interpretations, is important. Basically, “security” means that a message from X to Y should reach in the same form in which it was sent – it should not be garbled or open to anyone intercepting it in between, and must reach only the person it was meant for. All these aspects of security are critical. As for “sustainable”, what we do today should be sustainable for the future generations economically and environmentally. I believe that on all these counts, what the COAI is doing now, in terms of the virtual IMC 2020, would score very high.

I am told that IMC 2020 is the biggest telecommunication, media and technology event in South Asia. This is good news for us, and we must build on it. Artificial intelligence will be used to lead visitors to a stall or exhibition of their interest. Further, DoT is helping at least 30 startups and micro, small and medium enterprises by funding them at this event. We recently held a very successful hackathon on 5G, for which we received huge participation. A hundred entries have been shortlisted, and about one-third of them will be further shortlisted, in consultation with industry bodies. They are the ones identifying and selecting the start-ups through their own processes. The entire process should be complete in a short while. We are also trying to enable the successful entrants, that is, the shortlisted ones, to come for this event and showcase the applications they have developed. We have been told that 30 startups will come, but there is a possibility that this number might increase.

The way ahead

India offers a great opportunity in terms of investment in the huge market that we have for mobiles and mobile usage. Also, India is a storehouse of innovation, information technology (IT) and IT-enabled services. Since we will have people visiting IMC 2020 virtually, the event will witness all that India has to offer, as well as what these participants have to offer to India. We will showcase our strengths in the sector, and we will do this virtually. It is our belief that combined efforts by all stakeholders in the telecommunications sector will place India on a higher growth trajectory and bring in major enhancements in the quality of life of all citizens.