Prime Minister rendra Modi has called for the support of tech giants to his government’s ‘attack on poverty by using the power of networks and mobile phones’. In his rousing, just-concluded tour to the US, he has spoken about his dream of propelling India from a 8 trillion dollar economy which it is now, to a 20 trillion dollar economy before long. A key part of this vision has to be ‘Digital India’, the countrywide initiative launched by the Central government on July 1 this year to provide government services to citizens electronically. This will require creating a massive digital infrastructure with high-quality internet connectivity. Concomitant to this requirement must be high digital literacy of citizens to be able to use this service, which is why the Prime Minister spoke in the US about promoting ‘digital literacy in the same way as ensuring general literacy’. Bridging the digital divide will need information technology to make villages into ‘smart economic hubs’ and to set up rural common service centres, even as the government kick-starts its smart cities programme. In a country with 125 crore people and 22 official languages, internet access will become all-pervasive only if content is provided in local languages. India can thus offer a ‘vast cyber world of opportunities’ to tech giants like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Adobe, Qualcomm and others in creating infrastructure, providing services, manufacturing products and developing human resources — Prime Minister Modi has pointed out. It helps of course that several such tech giants have Indians heading them, who have enthusiastic responded to Modi’s sales pitch to ramp up investment and activities in India. How this enthusiasm translates into positive action on the ground will be crucial in the coming months.
Silicon Valley companies have promised more involvement with Digital India, but that can only materialise if the country becomes an easier place to do business. Can the Centre get the states on board to cut useless regulations and red tape, make the tax regime friendlier, cooperate in land and labour reform? Is there any hope of political parties ending the parliamentary logjam or will the Central government be forced to work around it? As for broadband penetration, there has been some disappointing news recently; a UN study has shown only 15.3 per cent Indian households with broadband internet connection in 2014, ranking 131 among 189 countries. The country thus has a formidable challenge in its hand to connect its 6 lakh villages as well as all its schools and colleges with broadband through the tiol optical fibre network. The government is also planning to expand public Wi-Fi hotspots in towns and cities, particularly in airports and railway stations. To keep this digital infrastructure working, the country will have to raise its power supply manifold. Then there is the question of spectrum, which is expensive in India. As of June 30 last, the number of internet users in the country had risen to 35.2 crores, of which over 60 per cent accessed the Net through mobile devices. In fact, due to the absence of broadband lines, rural India largely took the wireless route of mobile Internet.
For the poor rural user in India, price matters — which is why a computer or even a smartphone may be out of reach. On the whole, the mobile phone subscriber base in the country has touched 100 crores, covering 80 per cent of the population. But only a fraction of these are smartphones that can access the internet, so the government has to set the stage for global players to compete for market supremacy here with cheaper smartphones and faster networks. With Microsoft promising to take lost-cost broadband technology to our villages, Google offering free Wi-Fi services in 500 important railways stations, Qualcomm announcing investment hike in Indian start-ups — Digital India is set to get a headstart soon. Will the major involvement of foreign players go against Prime Minister modi’s ‘Make in India’ and ‘Design in India’ initiatives? Questions are being asked whether he has enough faith in the local entrepreneurial capabilities to take his digital vision forward. There will be pitfalls too, with a controversy about Net neutrality already beginning to rage over Prime Minister Modi’s vist to FaceBook headquarters. With Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg pushing his own vision of an affordable (but pared down) internet through ‘Internet.org’ which can help connect crores of poor Indians in the villages, there has been a storm of criticism that he is actually trying to divide the internet into free and paid sections for his own benefit. Prime Minister Modi’s promise of his government giving the highest importance to data privacy and security, intellectual property rights and cyber security, must also include other such sensitive and far-reaching aspects.