Here's why PM Modi's Digital India is a long way to go

PM Modi has been quite vocal about transforming India into a digitally empowered society with his pet project and most talked about initiative lately - Digital India.


PM Modi has been quite vocal about transforming India into a digitally empowered society with his pet project and most talked about initiative lately – Digital India.

For those who have been living under the rock, here's a quick brush through Digital India. Earlier this year, PM Narendra Modi launched the 'Digital India week' promising invests as much as Rs 4.5 lakh crore that aims at adding 1.8 million jobs. All this is aimed at improving electronic connectivity in the nation.

While the whole world is talking about India's Digital initiative, we are no closer to achieving it. Let's take a quick look at some of the hurdles.

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Stronger connectivity

Broadband penetration in India

One of the prime concerns has been broadband penetration. The most recent numbers show how India is down the slippery slope when it comes to broadband. The UN Broadband Commission released ‘The State of Broadband’ report yesterday just ahead of the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals Summit. India ranked 131 out of 189 countries on fixed-broadband subscriptions in 2014, a drop from the 125th rank a year before. India ranked 80 among 133 developing countries on percentage of households with internet in 2014 with a 15.3 per cent penetration as compared to the 75th rank and 13 per cent penetration in 2013.

The only saving grace is India's 136th rank in individuals using the Internet in 2014, with 18 percent individuals using the net, an improvement over the 142nd rank in 2013 when 15.1 per cent individuals used the internet. All in all, there needs to be an increase in the online representation, especially in a country like India, that has high linguistic diversity.

Rural connectivity

The government is trying to fix this with the aim to connect about 2.5 lakh village panchayats connected by the end of next year. Another most recent report points out how the total number of broadband-enabled households is slightly more than 1.5 crore – which means a penetration rate of mere 5 percent. That's a real meagre number and stepping it up won't be very quick or easy.

Taking broadband to such areas will also mean special value-added services. Moreover, it raises questions like will the lines be laid down effectively, quality of the service and so on. This is one of the main reasons why rural is jumping onto the mobile Internet bandwagon, bypassing the broadband lines.

Image: Reuters

The number of fixed line broadbands are slipping down Image: Reuters

One of the key announcements to come out of Modi's second US visit focusses on this aspect. Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella has said his company will take lost-cost broadband technology to some five lakh villages across the country. However, this also raises several questions such - haven't we been talking about 'Make in India'.

This may not be the case when it comes to mobile phones. Going by the most recent numbers from IAMAI, India has added 52 million Internet users in first six months of the year, taking the total user base to 352 million as on June 30, 2015.

However, 213 million, which means over 60 percent users, accessed the worldwide web through mobile devices. The number of Internet users has grown over 26% from 278 million in October 2014. The number of mobile Internet users has also grown about 40% from 159 million users in October last year.

What's really interesting in the report is how the Internet in India took more than a decade to move from 10 million to 100 million and mere 3 years from 100 to 200 million.

However, when it comes to smartphone penetration, we had hit a sudden roadblock. According to IDC, Indian smartphone market saw a sequential drop for the first time in Q4 of 2014 that ended December 31, 2014.

Equal for all! Image: Reuters

Equal for all! Image: Reuters

When it comes to fixed broadband, one of the main problem is a low-budget phone is cheaper than a full-fledged computer. And this has been driving mobile connectivity in India. Government-run cyber cafes and post offices for e-services is a great solution, but again, most of these villages are struggling with power cuts.

Some other digital initiatives that aim at reducing paper work and making easy access to knowledge are e-governance and several other websites that have been set-up. However, do you everyone is aware that they can go to MyGov.in and Twitter to check the new updates by government. The key here is – awareness, and in several forms and over a long period of time.

Today, it's all about working at grassroot level to create a viable ecosystem and infrastructure.

"With Digital India, the government is trying to create the infrastructure for people in India - urban or rural- and connect 2,50,000 villages with broadband optical connectivity. The government is trying to bring the infrastructure connectivity environment in each and every village, alongside trying to ensure e-governance, IT skills and eventually Make in India. For instance, broadband access to a panchayat's room means villagers can video conference with doctors and villages who are not willing to go to the village to offer their services," Dr. Rishi Bhatnagar, author of Enterprise IoT and chairperson at The IET IoT panel, India tells us.

Today, the cost of connectivity, cost of mobility, cost of hardware, device and so on is reducing. We have still a long way to go because it is about how a low-budget phone affordable by a farmer in a remote village will work beyond mere connectivity or how there would  be stable fixed broadband connectivity and so on.

Nevertheless, it is still a great initiative. After all, we need to start somewhere. However, it is just the start to the 'Digital India' vision, and we have a long way to go.


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