Sometime in 2000, the then president of Nasscom, Devang Mehta, raised a demand that would have made actor, director Manoj Kumar chuckle.
India, Mehta argued, needs roti, kapda and broadband, pegging makaan several notches down on the country's need hierarchy.
Back then in 2000, broadband was gobbledygook for most Indians. In the age of handsets that looked like pieces of bricks or compact hammers, and exorbitant call charges — Rs 16 for incoming, Rs 32 for outgoing — even mobile telephony was a luxury for urban Indians.
The internet was something that had the pace of a bullock cart, availability of a confirmed railway ticket and prices of airfare. Concepts like Mbps were mere fantasies, download speeds in low double digit kbs through dial-up connections were the much sought-out reality.
Mehta's cry for broadband as a basic right, obviously, looked like one of those sci-fi fantasies, like time travel and cryogenic freezing of age.
But, it is now turning into a reality.
On Thursday, Reliance Jio heralded a mini-revolution of sorts by turning broadband almost free as air, pegging its price as low as 5 paise per MB of 4G data. That's just a fraction of the rate companies were charging till recently for equivalent amount of 2G data. With Jio taking the lead, others will have no option but to either cut down prices or get edged out.
Over the past few years, cheap handsets, last-mile connectivity and affordable plans had connected most of India to mobile telephony. According to industry estimates, India now has a teledensity of almost 82 percent, almost a miracle compared to the days when landline connections were a luxury meant for the rich, famous and politically connected.
Internet connectivity, however, remained low, at around 19 percent among the lowest in the world. But, with the price barrier coming down, expect the numbers to zoom. Conservative figures set out in the Digital India programme set the connectivity target to around 50 crore (2.5 times the existing numbers) in around two years. But, history of technology has shown that the pace of progress and access gallops the moment prices come down. So, expect connectivity to at least treble by 2018.
The biggest advantage of the internet, like that of every new technology, is it minimises the need for travel and human-to-human interaction for essential services, simultaneously cutting down costs and time. Notice how it has revolutionised the Railways reservation system in India, turning it into a one-minute exercise from the day-long pain it was in the age of long queues at counters. Notice how it made post offices, telegrams, bank counters almost obsolete. Notice how it is bringing bazaars to our fingertips.
High speed, low-price internet in 50 crore pockets could lead to a similar revolution in schooling, medicine, entertainment and rural economy.
With access to high speed data, setting up schools could literally be child's play. All you need is a teacher interacting with students from a remote location through a digital screen owned by a community.
Several years ago, while speaking at the India Internet World in Delhi, audiences were shocked when Alex Lightman, entrepreneur and author of the Brave New Wireless World, had argued that a school could be set up in India by investing just Rs 20,000 initially.
Put a computer in a community room, connect it to batteries, appoint a teacher who can teach sitting at home and you have a school ready, he had argued back then. (I was part of the audience then, so remember the expression of incredulity on every listener's face.)
Lightman's prophetic words could soon become a reality in India, revolutionising the concept of schooling, making education accessible and affordable to all. For those who are willing to experiment, it won't be an exaggeration to say that schools as we know them — dependent on class room lectures by teachers — will soon became an outdated concept. (This is not to say they will die.)
Higher education, of course is free of its traditional clutches. As this piece in the Time magazine points out, in 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced it was going to put the university’s entire body of course materials online, for free. That meant syllabuses, as well as problem sets and exams—and their solutions. There were even going to be some video lectures online. In 2002, the MIT OpenCourseWare pilot project debuted with 32 courses. Today, according to MIT, 125 million visitors access material from 2,150 classes.."
Similar revolutions could take place in the medicine sector, especially in OPD settings that require patient-doctor interaction. Once virtual interaction becomes possible because of high-speed, cost-effective broadband, basic healthcare may become far more accessible in India.
The internet has already made infotainment almost free. Buying newspapers and magazines is fast becoming a fad when their free websites can be accessed in even remote villages. Till a few years ago, companies used to pay film producers huge amounts of money--sometimes in crores-- to buy music rights, which, in turn, were made available to consumers at very high rates. (An CD of the original sound track would cost anywhere between Rs 250-400 in the previous decade). All that is history in the age of streaming music through apps.
The next big revolution could now come in the film and TV industry, which, like the music industry, may be tempted to adopt cheaper alternatives to directly reach a captive audience of more than 50 crore with high speed data connection in their pocket.
And so the list goes.
Now that broadband is set to be cheaper (and more accessible) than both roti and kapda, get ready for a life even writers of sci-fi may not have imagined.
Disclosure: Firstpost is part of Network18 Media & Investment Limited which is owned by Reliance Industries Limited.