Over the years, the government’s thrust on digitalisation has led to the expansion of India’s digital infrastructure. The telecom sector has played a key role in driving this expansion. All major telecom stakeholders have taken initiatives to help the country transition from traditional legacy infrastructure to next-generation digital infrastructure, which will be the foundation of the future digital economy. As per industry estimates, digital technologies are expected to generate $1 trillion in economic value by 2025. However, capitalising on these opportunities would require a collaborative approach, involving various government agencies, private companies and other key stakeholders that can facilitate the creation of a strong digital ecosystem.

A look at the key elements of digital infrastructure, the factors driving its growth in the country and the way ahead…

Elements of digital infrastructure

Today, digital infrastructure has become one of the critical elements of a country. It primarily comprises foundational products, services and applications for both consumer and enterprise markets. These help develop the IT capabilities of a country, region, city or organisation. As per industry experts, the key elements of digital infrastructure are optical fibre, telecom towers, satellite communications (satcom), public Wi-Fi, and new and emerging technologies. The creation of a robust and smart digital infrastructure entails the use of all the above elements in a balanced manner. This will also require significant investments.

Current scenario

According to a report by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), India is currently the second fastest country in terms of digitalisation, among 17 emerging and mature digital economies. India’s digital index score has moved from 17 in 2014 to 32 in 2017 (on a scale of 0 to 100), the second-highest growth rate after Indonesia. This growth has been driven by the expansion of digital infrastructure, which has enabled the roll-out of platforms such as Aadhaar, Unified Payment Interface (UPI), mobile wallets, and various digital applications and solutions.

India has recently been lauded by a high-level panel on digital cooperation launched by the UN chief for undertaking revolutionary digital initiatives to ensure economic inclusion of around 1.3 billion citizens. The panel, in its report, recognised the consequential role of the new digital ecosystem “IndiaStack” in helping government agencies and entrepreneurs achieve economic inclusion in India. IndiaStack is a set of application programming interfaces that allows governments, businesses, start-ups and developers to utilise a unique digital infrastructure to move towards presence-less, paperless and cashless service delivery.

Factors propelling digital infrastructure growth

Digital India programme

A number of factors are driving the expansion of digital infrastructure in the country. Key among these is the government’s Digital India programme launched in July 2015, with a vision of transforming India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. One of the key objectives of the programme is the provision of digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen of the country. Over the past four years, the government has taken initiatives across many spheres, including e-governance, skill building and digital infrastructure creation to raise the level of digitalisation in the country. Post the launch of the programme, the country has built a strong foundation of digital infrastructure and has expanded broadband access to over 625 million subscribers. Further, the programme has played a critical role in digitally empowering citizens by ensuring access to essential healthcare and education services, generating employment opportunities, promoting entrepreneurship, and enhancing the citizens’ overall quality of life.

Focus on fibre

Optical fibre has emerged as an essential component of digital infrastructure, necessary for supporting the move towards cutting-edge technologies such as 5G, internet of things (IoT) etc. Therefore, industry stakeholders are laying emphasis on expanding fibre coverage across the country. The National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP), 2018 recognises that the digital era cannot begin without the adoption of the Fibre First initiative, which constitutes setting up a system of optical fibre links across the country. This will involve laying optical fibre cable (OFC) for providing broadband connectivity to gram panchayats (GPs) under the BharatNet project, increasing the level of tower fiberisation and enhancing fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connectivity.

As of November 22, 2019, 385,754 km of OFC has been laid to connect 142,086 GPs. Of these, 128,990 GPs have been made service-ready. Further, around 31 per cent towers have been fiberised till date. In terms of FTTH uptake, the total user base of wireline broadband services stands at just 18.45 million. Further, 685 FTTH connections have been installed so far under BharatNet. Going forward, the launch of Jio Fiber services could help increase fixed line broadband penetration significantly.

Satcom services

Apart from fibre, satcom has emerged as a key element of digital infrastructure, primarily in rural and remote areas. It is not only faster and more economical to deploy in rural areas, but can also provide connectivity at a lower cost per bit and offer wider coverage as compared to other connectivity mediums. In view of this, the government has selected satcom as a medium for connecting GPs under its BharatNet project. The satellite mode is being adopted for connecting GPs in Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, the Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar islands. As of November 22, 2019, 983 GPs have been made service-ready using the technology.

Satcom is also poised to play a major role in the government’s Digital India mission. Over the past few years, ISRO has released a series of satellites to accelerate development under the Digital India initiative. These include the launch of GSAT-19, GSAT-11, GSAT-29 and GSAT-20 with the aim of providing 100 Gbps data connectivity.

Focus on Wi-Fi roll-out

Another key technology witnessing significant traction is Wi-Fi services. Like satcom, Wi-Fi too is being seen as a technology that can help in driving internet uptake, particularly in rural areas. To this end, the government has been leveraging Wi-Fi under its ambitious BharatNet programme to extend last-mile connectivity to GPs. At present, Wi-Fi hotspots have been installed in 45,769 GPs (including GPs connected through satellite media). Of these, services are being provided in 16,151 GPs.

Further, RailTel is offering public Wi-Fi services at railway stations across the country and has connected 5,500 stations till date. Companies like Cisco and Google are also actively working towards expanding Wi-Fi infrastructure in the country. To this end, the two companies have announced a partnership to create free high-speed Wi-Fi zones across India. The project is already in its first phase of implementation, and 200 locations in Bengaluru have been made Wi-Fi enabled as of September 2019. The locations where Wi-Fi hotspots are being installed include public spaces such as bus stops, hospitals and government offices.

Smart Cities Mission

The government’s ambitious Smart Cities Mission has also played an important role in the expansion of digital infrastructure. Several cities selected under the Smart Cities Mission have awarded contracts to equipment vendors and telecom operators to deploy digital infrastructure for supporting various applications. Digital solutions, worth an aggregate investment of around Rs 389.14 billion, are being deployed under the Smart Cities Mission.

Further, India has recently joined the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance on Technology Governance, a league of the world’s 15 leading city networks and technology governance organisations that will work towards advancing the responsible and ethical use of smart city technologies. The alliance will set global norms and policy standards for the use of connected devices in public spaces. This will help in establishing a sustainable digital infrastructure.

Adoption of cutting-edge technologies

The introduction of cutting-edge technologies such as IoT, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics has also contributed to the need for building digital infrastructure. Since these technologies use data generated from various devices and applications, it becomes imperative to establish an infrastructure that can support their day-to-day operations. IoT technology forms a fundamental component of most smart cities and has the largest uptake in smart city projects. In fact, the technology is projected to have a potential economic impact of $3.9-$11.1 trillion a year by 2025. Meanwhile, AI and machine learning technologies are being used to gain insights from the data generated through digital devices. Smart city administrators can use the findings to solve problems, automate processes, improve performance where necessary, and introduce new smart features and services.

These new-age technologies have also significantly impacted operations in critical sectors such as education, agriculture and healthcare. In light of the benefits, these sectors have started digitalising their infrastructure to enhance their operational efficiency and remain competitive in the market. According to a report by KPMG, 43 per cent of companies across sectors have started deploying these technologies, while almost 31 per cent are yet to develop a digital strategy roadmap. Going forward, these technologies have the potential to alter the delivery models in these sectors, driving a wave of innovation that will add immense value to the economy.

Roadblocks to digitalisation

While significant progress has been made in India in terms of the establishment of digital infrastructure, a lot still needs to be done. Some key roadblocks need to be removed to propel digitalisation in the country. One of the roadblocks that continue to hamper digital adoption is the unavailability of adequate funds. Therefore, there is an urgent need to improve financing measures. The lack of device interoperability standards also impacts the quality of technology implementation and limits innovation in the country.

Further, limited capacity to undertake large and complex digital projects at the state and central levels is another challenge. This is because there are no standard/central guidelines for undertaking digital projects. In addition, there is lack of a robust regulatory environment, which is essential for attracting both domestic and foreign investments. Another drawback is the limited number of public private partnership (PPP) projects. The government needs to take initiatives to promote PPPs for the roll-out of digital infrastructure. This can be done by allocating funds to incentivise PPPs in this field, setting up specialised agencies to review and improve projects to minimise the terms of renegotiation, and designing and implementing practical and appropriate service standards for PPP contracts.

Towards a digital future

Despite these challenges, India continues to be one of the fastest growing digital economies in the world. While the country’s digital infrastructure is in place now, the next step is to integrate this infrastructure across the entire digital ecosystem in order to benefit all industry stakeholders. This calls for the formulation of public policies to encourage stakeholders to pursue collaborative business models. These will help in promoting greater use of digital infrastructure and driving the demand for digital services across sectors. It is also imperative to modernise regulations in order to incentivise domestic as well as foreign investors to undertake investments in new technologies and to promote innovation throughout the digital ecosystem.

By Kuhu Singh Abbhi