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Growing the Internet 3 February 2016

Access in India and the Digital India promise

I recently attended the 24th edition of Convergence India, the ICT and Broadcast expo in Delhi.  The theme of the exhibition and a conference track was the much talked about Digital India. This topic, like the project, has filled the 1.25 billion Indians with pride and evoked much emotion at the same time.

In the words of Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India: “Digital connectivity should become as much a basic right as access to school … under Digital India, IT will be used to drive government processes to improve service delivery and programme implementation and provide broadband connectivity to villages. “  

Digital India is government-led with a government service provider as the custodian.  Other special initiatives launched include Make in India (to foster innovation, enhance skill development, conceptualise and promote manufacturing in ICT), Skilling India and Smart Cities (establish 100 smart cities across India).  In the words of the Minister of Communication and IT, this $18 billion programme ‘sets India for a digital revolution’.  

Our Wireless for Communities (W4C) project, which we started six years ago, connects remote communities to the Internet using unlicensed free spectrum, and low cost Wi-Fi equipment.  We built local expertise by training barefoot engineers, and made it sustainable through community ownership and revenue generating models.    The project also empowers the community for digital knowledge-based transformation.  Through the project, we pretty much do it all -  create digital infrastructure, help deliver services digitally and, develop digital literacy.

Were there any experiences and findings we could share with the Digital India programme? We learnt much from our project, and these would indeed be relevant. These include:

·  The level of Internet connectivity can be affected by wider government policy, prices of services and devices, overall level of infrastructure and backhaul availability etc.

·  Infrastructure sharing should be promoted as much as possible; these include towers, ducts and radio spectrum

·  Devices like mobiles should be made more affordable and with a basic set of features which allows people to use it as a means to access the Internet

·  Applications and content should be designed such that they take into account the local context, including local needs and relevance

·  Liberalise the last mile and make it commercially viable for different kinds of players such as rural ISPs.  Explore new models eg. Have municipalities invest in the network and look at PPP models to operate i

·  There needs to be more holistic spectrum allocation to take into account public interest  

·  Streamline and harmonize licensing procedures such as for obtaining a leased line or putting up towers etc

·  Accelerate mutual recognized arrangements (MRAs) that simplify and speed up import certificates, particularly to allow low cost device availability

As the Internet of Everything is on its way – and promises to further change the way we live and work – the Digital India project is an acknowledgment of the power of the Internet and all its benefits.                         


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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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