Digital India is an important vehicle for boosting broadband connectivity

Digital India is a pet project by Prime Minister Narendra Modi intended to bring about rapid transformation in the most marginalised sections of the society.

Broadband connectivity in India is in a pathetic state, and the performance of broadband is among worst in the world. Broadband performance has been falling with every passing year and increased connectivity.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) operate as local monopolies which allows them to have highly restrictive data limits. The most restrictive FUP plans in the world are in Papua New Guinea, Vietnam and India. FUP and data caps simply have to go for meaningful broadband connectivity in India. The Digital India initiative is in a strong position to take effective steps to remedy the situation.

Digital India is an important vehicle for boosting broadband connectivity

Quality of broadband in India is lower than local and global levels

Digital India is a pet project by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, intended to bring about rapid transformation in the most marginalised sections of the society. He pitched his mission for Digital India in a meeting with CEOs of major tech companies, he addressed Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayan, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Qualcomm executive chairman Paul Jacobs, Fcaebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. PM Modi said that building connectivity was as important as building roads, “We will connect all schools and colleges with broadband. Building I—ways are as important as highways”

Modi with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Modi with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Since the meetings, there have been a series of developments where major tech companies have contributed to the Digital India mission. Cisco unveiled a $60 million investment plan for India which included conferences and training programs. Nagpur was selected for conversion into a smart city, with Cisco providing the infrastructure for a citywide network with integrated Wi-Fi hotspots and surveillance technologies. Cisco is going beyond just smart cities, with a Smart Villages plan as well, with the first pilot project in Fetri village in Nagpur discrict. As part of the Digital Maharashtra vision, Cisco is contributing to the statewide deployment of broadband infrastructure.

Google RailWire

Google has tied up with the communications arm of the Indian Railways, RailTel, to roll out public wi-fi hotspots in Railway stations across India. “We are working with the Indian Railways and RailTel to bring high-speed wireless access to the entire Internet to millions of Indians who travel through India’s top railway stations,” Indian born Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in an Investors call.

google station

At the second edition of the Google for India event, Google launched Google Stations, an India specific initiative for providing high speed wireless broadband connectivity in not only Indian Railway stations but also public spaces. Google intends to roll out Wi-Fi hotspots in 100 stations by the end of 2016.

Google Stations has 15,000 new users connecting up every day, with an active user base of 3.5 million every month. Google further announced plans to extend connectivity in schools, restaurants, shops and malls. Google intends to partner with location and venue owners to set up public Wi-Fi hotspots across the country.

Credit: Trai

Smart Cities, IoT and Connected Cars will all need high speed broadband. Credit: Trai

High speed connectivity is required for providing healthcare, banking, e-governance and education to the underserved. However, the ubiquitous broadband will also be required to support smart cities, connected cars and the internet of things. Qualcomm has set up an India specific venture firm with US $150 million (approximately Rs 9.8 billion) earmarked to encourage innovative new startups in India. The fund will focus on mobile and internet of things based startups.

Mukesh Ambani at the Reliance AGM

Mukesh Ambani at the Reliance AGM

Reliance Jio plans to provide high speed 1 Gbps broadband services to 100 cities in India. The rollout will be one of the largest high speed networks in the world. Even BSNL provides 100 Mbps plus broadband speeds in only 97 cities across India. If successful, this ambitious rollout will revolutionise internet access in India. Current gigabit speeds in India cost two or three times as much as the plans available globally. During Reliance Industries' AGM announcement, Mukesh Ambani said, “Data is the oxygen of digital life and oxygen must never be in short supply.”

Satya Nadella, the first Indian-American CEO of Microsoft.

Satya Nadella, the first Indian-American CEO of Microsoft.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that Microsoft would be working to bring low cost broadband access to 500,000 villages in India in partnership with the Digital India program. “We believe that low-cost broad band connectivity coupled with the scale of cloud computing intelligence that can be harnessed from data can help drive creativity, efficiency and productivity across governments and businesses of all sizes,” Nadella said. Microsoft also announced local hosting of cloud services at the same event.

Ambassador Daniel Sepulveda. Image: US Department of State.

Ambassador Daniel Sepulveda. Image: US Department of State.

Major tech companies from the United States see India as the next big market, especially with the large chunk of population still to get online. A senior US official committed to sharing expertise with the Digital India program on the side lines of an US-India Cyber Dialogue. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Sepulveda said "We share common interests and US has its expertise to share. We will share our best practices between the regulators."

MIT President L. Rafael Reif. Image: MIT.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif. Image: MIT.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) President Rafael Reif visited Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January this year. A part of the discussion was an on expertise and knowledge transfer. The possibility of senior or retired MIT professors coming to teach in India was discussed. Modi asked for the use of MIT expertise in the Digital India program, an option that Reif was appreciative about, and offered his assistance to.


Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha

Speaking at a connectivity seminar, Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha outlined the challenges for Digital India, and stressed that innovative techniques are needed to overcome these hurdles. He called for a holistic approach to tackle the problem, rather than taking care of it in small bits. He revealed that the Finance Ministry was conservative of allocating funds to the Universal Service Obligation Fund, a program to deliver connectivity to rural populations, even though the funds were available. Sinha announced that over Rs 10,000 crore will be spent between 2016 and 2017 for boosting connectivity infrastructure in rural areas.

NOFN Concept Diagram

NOFN Concept Diagram. Image: BBNL.

The National Optical Fibre Network is an initiative to connect all the 2,50,000 Gram Panchayats in the country. BSNL, Railtel and the Power Grid are being used to extend the connectivity. The cost of the NOFN project is Rs 20,000 crore and is expected to be completed by 2017.

SWAN Concept Diagram.

SWAN Concept Diagram. Image: MEITY.

The State Wide Area Network was an initiative with  Rs 2,005 crore allocated for establishing high speed connections between State and Union Territory headquarters and the block or district level headquarters. There has been successful roll-out of the SWANs in all states except the Andaman Islands and Jammu and Kashmir. Swan integration with the National Knowledge Network is under way now.


In the Digital India program, the Broadband Highways form the first and most important pillar, the central support for all the other technologies. The National Information Infrastructure plan is an effort to integrate State Wide Area Networks (SWAN), the National Knowledge Network (NKN), National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN), Government User Network (GUN) and Meghraj Cloud.

The Digital India program is driving investments in Information Technology by the government. According to Gartner, the Indian Government is expected to invest $7 billion on IT products and services in 2016, 3.1 percent increase over the previous year. Consulting, support, BPOs and IT outsourcing businesses are expected to grow because of the Digital India Program.

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