Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma, former, chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)

In the years to come, the digital economy will emerge as a key driver of the country’s socio-economic growth. The government’s Digital India programme focuses on bridging the rural-urban divide by rapidly expanding the country’s digital network and ensuring that broadband reaches all. Digitalisation can prove to be a veritable game changer for empowering the citizens of India. It can be further facilitated and accelerated by 5G and other new and emerging technologies. To make the Digital India programme a success, there is an urgent need for all stakeholders to come together, collaborate and work towards setting milestones and achieving them. In a virtual session on “Digital Highway to 2025 – Suggested Milestones”, organised by the Broadband India Forum, Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma, former, chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), shared his insights and perspective on India’s digital future, the desired time-specific goals to be achieved in this journey, and the opportunities and challenges to be addressed on the way. Edited excerpts…

The government’s Digital India mission is a highly comprehensive programme. It not only lays down the end goal, but also articulates all the components that will be critical to achieve this goal. The programme enlists nine pillars of growth – broadband highways, universal access to mobile connectivity, a public internet access programme, e-governance: reforming government through technology, e-Kranti: electronic delivery of services, information for all, electronics manufacturing, IT for jobs and early harvest programmes – which are crucial for realising India’s digital dream. Against this background, it is important that the country looks at certain key milestones to be achieved over the next few years to create a digital highway for all the citizens to ride on.

The following are some of the key milestones that the country must strive to achieve by 2025…

Broadband access for all

Broadband connectivity continues to be the most important ingredient in making Digital India a success. Thus, I consider reliable broadband access for every citizen as the most important milestone that the government and the industry must aim to achieve by 2025. Of course, we would have to decide which technologies will be best suited to usher in the broadband revolution. While technologies like 2G, 3G and 4G will continue to play a strong role, the power of 5G must also be harnessed going forward.

Till yesterday, we were talking about connecting people, but today, with 5G and new technologies such as internet of things, we are talking about connecting things and automating machines and processes.

At TRAI, our efforts have always been to suggest, recommend and enable a regulatory environment for improving broadband connectivity across the country. We have also emphasised that not only would the government have to invest in digital highways, but private investments would also be crucial. That said, the private sector will only participate if it sees a viable business case, supported by an enabling policy and regulatory environment.

Clearly, the digital space offers a strong business case. We have seen that even in these Covid times several international players have tied up with Indian companies in the technology space. There are several global entities that are willing to invest in India’s long-term future. Thus, ensuring ease of doing business can go a long way in promoting investments in the country, and in the telecom sector in particular.

In the past, TRAI has been instrumental in suggesting and recommending several important policy/regulatory moves such as the delivery of broadband services over cable TV network, proliferation of public Wi-Fi services, an open sky policy, push for satellite communications and, most importantly, a public-private partnership model for the implementation of the BharatNet project. The sole objective of all the aforementioned recommendations has been to improve connectivity across the country. Thus, by 2025, the goal should be to provide access to quality broadband to every person in India.

Local manufacturing

I strongly believe that India can manufacture most of the telecom products domestically and at compelling price points. We have to dispel this myth that we cannot make a product that is robust, yet cheap. I believe that given the right policy environment and the right set of incentives, domestic manufacturing in India can take off in a big way.

Given China’s international position, companies are keen to shift their manufacturing base to other countries, and India must gear up for this big opportunity. It must strive to develop an ecosystem to attract global manufacturers. For this, all stakeholders including industry partners and the government would have to come together. So, alongside expanding connectivity, India must also aim at developing a huge domestic manufacturing base by 2025.

Open platforms and systems

While connectivity is the base layer necessary to implement the Digital India programme, appropriate applications and platforms must also be developed to empower citizens digitally.

The industry has witnessed the rise of inclusive systems. Thus, instead of developing multiple closed platforms, people are now looking at integrated platforms such as Amazon, Walmart and Facebook. Today, several new technologies, such as blockchain, are available. They can help build new systems without disrupting businesses. One can build a new platform and people will automatically come to it if they find it intuitive, non-exploitative and non-arbitrary.

There is a need to focus on open systems. If all the industry stakeholders decide to come together to develop open protocols, it will be the best way forward for the industry. So, by 2025, we must focus on moving to open systems and software. Examples can be drawn from the payments domain. Inlcusive and open platforms such as Aadhaar and UPI (unified payments interface) can be extended to other sectors in the future.

Fiberisation and alternative technologies

The success of the Digital India programme hinges on robust high speed connectivity to empower citizens digitally. For this, the industry needs to significantly ramp up fiberisation. It is a matter of concern that India manufactures 40 per cent of the world’s optical fibre cable (OFC), but only 30 per cent of its tower sites are connected to fibre.

There is an urgent need to create an OFC grid in the country. Interestingly, the expenditure on building out such a network is much less than the expenditure in laying a road network. Covid-19 has exhibited how virtual connectivity can reduce the need for physical movement and transportation. Hundreds of people can get connected on a videoconference and none of them have to leave their house.

Fiberisation, in fact, is a critical component for 5G roll-out. Thus, it is important that we have policies that incentivise fiberisation, proliferation of Wi-Fi networks, and setting up of backhaul in remote areas. TRAI has recently given its recommendation on how we should allow VSAT CUG systems to be used as a backhaul.

Right of way (RoW) remains a key unresolved issue for the industry. While the government has laid down guidelines, their implementation has been dismal. Thus, effectively, there has been limited benefit to the industry. The need of the hour is to have more interactions with state governments to align them with the central rules. The state authorities must realise the importance of an easy RoW for fibre penetration, which, in turn, is crucial for the digitalisation of state functions.

Over the years, TRAI has given recommendations with respect to enhancing backhaul capacity and, using E-band and V-band, etc. I believe our policy framework should align with the technological development that the industry is witnessing, so as to propel India into a new digital world.