By Aruna Sharma
The role and function of telecommunication is to provide exchange of communication or information at a distance between people, satellites or computers. Across the globe, telecommunication developments have triggered inventions and usages to provide universal access to telecom services at affordable and reasonable prices. This focus seems to have been lost sight of in our telecom policymaking, which seems more like a crisis-management kind of reaction to court litigations.
In the process, the real objective has been lost and the focus is on revenue-maximisation instead of ensuring equitable access to an entire population across the country.
The first vital step is to provide connectivity. With governance now nearly 85% digital—whether it is data, entitlement or direct benefit transfers, payment for services, transparency in governance, insistence on online education—there is serious concern about how connectivity is to be provided in all the common service centres (CSCs) across India, especially in the 2.5 lakh panchayats. The current focus is on the spread of the optical fibre network. With so much variation across the terrain, there is a strong case for the use of a basket of technologies if the target is to be achieved by 2023—ranging from VSAT, WiMAX, broadband connectivity, optical fibre, to that of the white space on Doordarshan’s spectrum. If the objective is to provide quality telecom services at not just affordable prices but also in the shortest possible time, a combination of all these technologies will have to be used.
The situation becomes more critical with the Indian economy going through one of the most difficult phases in the post-liberalisation era. Corporate results in each of the quarters reflect a slowdown in profit growth across sectors, limiting the industry’s capacity to modernise or expand. A telecommunication credible policy can assist to set a new normal in the growth story.
The slowdown is reflecting on job creation as well. The sliding GDP growth and Covid-19 has demonstrated the shift to business on the internet and thus the need for robust telecom speed. The slowdown is broad-based; it has affected manufacturing, trade, hotels, transport, communication, broadcasting, construction, agriculture—covering the entire economy. So, what are the structural changes needed to make India an economic superpower? The major step in setting the foundation is to have a robust telecom system.
The need to optimise available spectrum is unfortunately becoming a victim of revenue-maximisation, instead of easing the penetration to have better connectivity. The result is there are not many takers for 700MHz that is needed for penetration, and for other technologies. The 5G spectrum allocation is also going slow. There is need to revisit the policy and shift from revenue-maximisation to more and more penetration.
Internet-based crimes have become a cause of concern for governments globally. At a localised level, use of social networking sites has become a common trait of criminal activity. Popular platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are being leveraged for illegal activities. Apart from the transfer of social protection funds, the banking mechanism, education, tourism, navigation, logistics and e-commerce are also being impacted. Wider information exchange is a double-edged sword, but it can also be used to give correct information.
Think how chaotic operations during major lockdowns due to Covid-19 would be without an effective telecom network, for services, the work-from-home imperative, banking, ATM, communication of information, webinars, etc. Thus, telecommunication is vital to put India on the growth path, both in normal times and during crises. The holistic approach is to have a roadmap for equipment for telecom and speedy penetration of reliable network. This fact is recognised in the government’s Public Procurement (Preference to Make in India) Order 2017 that includes 36 goods and services related to the telecom sector; we do have many telecom products being made in India but are not able to scale up because of non-clarity in policies of procurement by telecom operators and defence. That clarity should be the first step to encourage local manufacturing and build long-term confidence.
India, with its varied communities, lifestyles and a billion consumers, is attractive in terms of data for any market research company targeting customers for a product. A major challenge is to guard not just Indian data but also ensure no intrusion into the privacy of individuals. The need is to fix rogue audits and bulletproof 5G. The government has initiated steps to harmonising a set of security standards and data protection laws. Constant evolution in the field makes this a long journey.
It’s an opportunity for India to make a big telecom leap as the country is on the hockey stick curve on usage of data, which should ensure a boost to business communication, and data analytics that meet high quality defence requirements. Artificial intelligence (AI) is an emerging field and will bring in automation. It is like another industrial revolution, for the emergence of computers will open new avenues for better utilisation of human resources.
The telecom policy needs to have a holistic approach; it is a combination of Telecommunication, Rural Development, Commerce, Ministry of Information Technology and Communication, Financial aspects of Policy, user departments and cybersecurity issues. Thus, any policymaking needs to have a formal platform for interactions. This will reduce ambiguity and shift policymaking from the one based on judicial directions to the one born of a holistic approach to achieve the real objective of this sector.
Digitisation can be a stepping stone to ensure no one is left behind and provide a sustainable approach to poverty eradication to achieve the seven SDG direct goals. It will trigger better credit eligibility for the poor and measures for their financial inclusion, and grow avenues for more skills and sustainable employment opportunities. Instead of relying on random data or selection of beneficiaries through traditional welfare methods, optimisation lies in using the digital MIS approach to make a shift from welfare to entitlement, ensure privacy and a better focus on benefits. This will be a holistic solution to poverty that is the biggest violator of human rights.
The author is a practitioner development economist, and former secretary, Government of India