Chapter # 18. Digital Connectivity
Given the relevance of digital connectivity to economic growth and the need to eliminate the digital divide by 2022-23, India should aim to achieve:
- Physical digital connectivity across all states, districts and gram panchayats (GPs).
- Delivery of government services digitally by 2022-23.
- Hundred per cent basic digital literacy across the country to be able to leverage the benefits of digitization.
According to the Internet Trends 2017 report,1 27 per cent of India’s population (355 million users) uses the internet. While this represents exponential growth compared to the 4 per cent penetration in 2009 (see Figure 18.1 below), there is scope for improvement.
The Digital India scheme launched in 2015 brought the topic of digitization to the forefront of public discourse. Areas including construction of broadband highways, public internet access, e-governance and development of basic information technology skills, etc., have achieved considerable progress under this programme2.
In 2011,4 the scheme for the creation of a National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) was initiated to connect all the GPs of the country with high-speed internet. Although the project has lagged behind its original timelines, significant progress has been made in the past two years.
As of February 4, 2018,5 under BharatNet, work had started in 1.24 lakh GPs of which 1.08 lakh GPs were service ready. The targeted timeline to connect the remaining 1,50,000 GPs is March 2019.
Furthermore, the National Information Infrastructure (NII) will ensure the integration of the networks and cloud infrastructure to provide high-speed connectivity to various government departments up to the panchayat level.6
The components of NII include networks such as the State Wide Area Network (SWAN), National Knowledge Network (NKN), BharatNet, Government User Network (GUN) and the MeghRaj Cloud.
The government also launched the Public Internet Access Programme7 to make 2,50,000 common service centres (CSCs) operational at the gram panchayat level to deliver government services online. Under this programme, 1,50,000 post offices will be converted into multi-service centres.
The last mile connectivity, through Wi-Fi or any other suitable broadband technology, is to be provided at all GPs in the country, funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF).
Since the last mile connectivity will be provided by a service provider, it will ensure the presence of at least one telecommunications service provider (TSP)/internet service providers (ISP) at each GP to provide data service.
The government has identified 55,619 villages8 with no mobile coverage. Most of these villages are in the North-Eastern states. A comprehensive development plan, to be implemented in phases, has been initiated to cover remote villages in the North-East.
With the increasing role of technology in our daily lives and the growing significance of Industry 4.0, India can only unlock its true potential once digital connectivity, the basic building block for most technological solutions, reaches the last mile. The constraints that need to be addressed to unleash the full benefits of digital connectivity in India fall under five major areas:
- Broadband connectivity
- Internet access is plagued by issues related to quality and reliability, outages, call drops and weak signals.
- The current definition of broadband of 512 kbps9 speed is inadequate and not in line with the expected rise in demand in the future.
- Existing networks have been strained by limited spectrum availability and usage, affecting the provision of quality services.
- Digital access and literacy
- A significant portion of our population does not have access to devices such as laptops, computers, smartphones, etc.
- Digital literacy in India is estimated to be less than 10 per cent of the population.10
- Content in Indian languages
- Currently, most digital content is in English. However, a KPMG11 report suggested that “9 out of every 10 new internet users in India over the next 5 years are likely to be Indian language users”.
- Availability of e-services
- A large number of e-services are not available on the digital platform and there is wide variation across states in the availability of citizen e-services. Currently, citizens have to physically visit government offices to access most government-to-citizen (G2C) services, as municipalities and other government bodies have been slow to digitize their processes.
- Cyber security
- The regulatory framework for cyber security is inadequate.
- Hacking and denial-of-service attacks have led to disruption of services, both in the government and the private sector – banks and governments increasingly face security breaches.
- A modified strategy for expediting the pace of implementation of the BharatNet project was approved on July 19, 2017. As part of the modified strategy, the remaining 1.50,000 GPs are to be connected in Phase-II through a state-led model (8 states), private sector model (2 states) and CPSU model (10 states) by using an optimal mix of media (OFC, radio and satellite).
- Further, about 5298 GPs located in remote and hilly locations with poor connectivity are being connected on satellite media, so as to provide broadband connectivity to all GPs. The service delivery mechanism, by providing last mile connectivity through Wi-Fi or any other suitable broadband technology to all GPs, has been made an integral part of the project.
- The project is targeted to be implemented by March, 2019. In addition, public Wi-Fi hotspots are being set up by BSNL at its 25,000 telephone exchanges in rural areas and Wi-Fi choupals are being set up in 5,000 GPs by CSC-SPV under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY).
- The provision of universal broadband coverage at 50 Mbps to every citizen and the enabling of 100 Mbps broadband on demand to all key development institutions, including educational institutions, are under consideration in the new National Digital Communications Policy, 2018.
- As the sector regulator, TRAI should consider putting in place a credible system to track call drops, weak signals and outages to ensure the quality and reliability of telecom services.
- The results may be put in the public domain. Government should also put in place telecom ombudsman for complaint redressal.
Quality of service
- Adequate spectrum availability is critical to ensure service quality. Efficient spectrum allocation in large contiguous blocks should be explored. We should also explore migration to new technologies which would resolve some of the bandwidth challenges.
Access and digital literacy
- Digital literacy needs special focus at the school/college levels. The National Digital Literacy Mission should focus on introducing digital literacy at the primary school level in all government schools for basic content and in higher classes and colleges for advanced content. The multiplier effects of this mission will be realized when these students in turn educate their family members. Higher digital literacy will also increase the adoption of computer hardware across the country.
Content in Indian languages
- State governments should pay special attention to creating content, particularly those relating to government e-services, in Indian regional languages.
- To fulfil the vision of making all government’s online services available in all 22 official languages, there needs to be focused collaboration between the centre, states and researchers to promote Natural Language Processing (NLP) in Indian languages. Machine learning now makes this well within reach. Focus could be laid on the automatic translation of content into regional languages from Hindi or English. Case studies like those of the European Union, which had similar problems in making content available in the languages of member countries, should be explored to identify models that can potentially be adopted.
Availability of e-services
- Individual ministries and states have to play a pivotal role in ensuring that all their services are available and easily accessible by citizens over digital platforms. Digital platforms, that enable real-time data updates, would increase accountability, and facilitate monitoring, quality checks and timely intervention by the higher administrative authorities. Procurement of such digital platforms could be standardized by the central government based on an analysis of successful case studies in India. This would ensure expedited implementation across the country. As mentioned earlier, ministries/states should also ensure that the services are reliable, safe and available in regional languages as well as in Hindi/English.
- MeitY will need to evolve a comprehensive cyber security framework for data security, safe digital transactions and complaint redressal. The National e-governance Division of MeitY should periodically audit compliance of e-services offered by state governments. It should bring out a performance report of e-services with a view to improve service delivery.