India’s dash towards a digital future is stumbling on the lack of infrastructure. Although the country has the world’s third highest number of internet users, the quality of access is abysmal. According to a report released recently by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), India ranks a poor 125th in penetration of fixed line broadband, well below even South Asian neighbours such as Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Wireless broadband, which has led to the spurt in users, isn’t much better, with India coming in 113th in the world. We are among the 42 least connected countries in the world. And this is just nominal access. At a time when the US Federal Communications Commission has upped the definition of broadband to download speeds of 25 mbps, TRAI defines broadband as having download speeds of 512 kilobytes per second or higher. A study by cloud computing firm Akamai found that only 6.9 per cent of Indian users had connection speeds of 4 mbps or higher — which it defines as basic broadband. Its classification of high broadband — speeds of 10 mbps or higher — excludes 99 per cent of all Indian users. This calls for a relook at our internet policy, which so far has had a wireless skew. Though wireless broadband may have done the initial job of connecting users to the internet, given its spectrum and infrastructure constraints, delivering a reasonable quality of internet access is beyond its ability.
The solution is to deploy fibre optic networks with the capacity to deliver up to 100 mbps speeds on demand. Unfortunately, India’s rollout of its planned National Fibre Optic Network (NFON), which aims to connect the entire country up to the village panchayat level with a fibre network, is lagging badly behind schedule. Last year, the special purpose vehicle tasked with laying the fibre — Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) — could meet only 40 per cent of its target. The Modi government, which has made digitisation a key priority, has stepped up the outlay substantially, with the NFON now rechristened BharatNet, and slated for a spend of ₹72,778 crore. But throwing money at the issue solves only a part of the problem. An expert committee under former IT Secretary J Satyanarayana that examined the reasons for the delay has suggested a drastic overhaul of the current set-up, including hiring talent for BBNL from industry, creating an empowered group reporting directly to the Prime Minister to cut through decision-making delays, and bringing other stakeholders, including State governments, on board. The Centre needs to review these recommendations urgently.
However, ‘Digital India’ will not happen even if the infrastructure is in place unless equal attention is paid to what is made available at the end of the pipeline. A nationwide, high-quality, high-speed internet network can transform education and healthcare delivery, as well as e-governance. But it will still be up to the government to take governance to the people.