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India Mobile Congress 2020Shaping Sustainable Digital Future through Telecom and Technology, 10.12.2020

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Dr Archana Gulati
Published Oct 12, 2020
Updated Aug 24, 2023

My interventions at this event as a panellist: 

A. On the subject of How Digital Communications can contribute towards the achievement of SDGs and is there any change in perspective on account of the pandemic.

If there is one thing that we have learned from the ongoing pandemic, it is that digital connectivity is essential. In a situation where you are physically separated and distanced, only digital connectivity can ensure business continuity, socioeconomic stability, and growth. Work from home, study from home, shop from home, remote monitoring of health and logistics and smart factories, all these are impossible without quality connectivity.

Further, the pandemic has also underlined that this inevitable requirement of digital connectivity also exacerbates the implications of digital divides. The digital have-nots really suffer. The efforts of the Government to reach out and alleviate the problems of people in crisis too can be frustrated if they are not digitally connected.

I can tell you that post the pandemic; there is a strong and renewed emphasis on tapping ICTs for better citizen services, health and education, logistics and agriculture, etc., and universal digital connectivity.

Even in the absence of the pandemic, there has been a significant emphasis on digital connectivity & ICT, as is evident from the vision of Digital India and the Government’s focus on digital financial inclusion, digital identity, digital education and health, the Direct Benefit Transfer Mission and the underlying ICT infrastructure. Now we have a new Digital Health Mission and a commitment to connect all villages with fibre.

The release of the National Digital Communications Policy in 2018, the emphasis on BharatNet and the launch of the National Broadband Mission are all because of the precise relationship between ICTs and the achievement of SDGs related to poverty or equality, health or education, employment or environment.

Telecom penetration has multiplier effects across the economy, and in an increasingly digital future, it will be critical to enable the expeditious achievement of SDGs. Each line of action to achieve an SDG has a digital counterpart. Thus if regional disparities are sought to be reduced by targeting 115 Aspirational Districts, The Dept.  of Telecom has special schemes to provide connectivity to the Aspirational Districts. This is because ICTs are fundamental for other government efforts to fructify.

 And, of course, all the SDGs are related. Thus, smart agriculture and logistics can help end hunger, and digital health and education can directly impact the related SDGs, ending poverty and reducing gender disparities. Better land and water management through ICTs and sustainable development through intelligent grids can help mitigate natural disasters aggravating poverty and inequalities.

Digital connectivity is a great transparency enhancer that gives citizens a voice and provides a much-needed feedback loop to inform policymaking. It can thus empower citizens and strengthen justice.

In particular, I am a great believer in the power of digital connectivity to reduce inequality and bring about gender parity. We have heard of the adverse impact of the pandemic on women. Women’s education, employment and safety can all be significantly enhanced through digital connectivity. Even today, female ownership of mobiles or digital literacy is very low. Further, accessible ICTs hold great promise for persons with disabilities are needed to care for the aged, particularly in situations like the ongoing pandemic.

 B.  On What can be done to Hasten Connectivity?

There are many fronts on which this problem is being tackled and can be tackled.

First, connectivity must be universal. We still have a very skewed penetration. Rural broadband penetration lags around 30% of the population, and even teledensity is less than 60%. Then as mentioned earlier, there is the question of equal access for women and Persons with Disabilities. This requires affordable devices, accessible devices and digital literacy.

Second, is the quality of our broadband. We still lag on speed. We have an average rate of about 12MBPS against an ambitious target in the National Broadband Mission of delivering  50 MBPS.

There are major problems in the deployment of telecom infrastructure due to Right of Way issues. These need to be tackled. Less than 40% of our towers are fiberized, and we need many more. The national Broadband Mission aims almost to double the number of towers. An adequate spectrum must be available to improve quality and allow for new technologies and innovation.

 Suppose we are to tap the benefits of 5G, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, augmented reality and Virtual Reality to use innovative new applications across socio-economic sectors. In that case, we need to address these issues. New telecom technologies have very different deployment architecture, and the regulatory environment must keep pace.

 Then we have an over-reliance on terrestrial communications and especially mobile broadband. We need multi-modal connectivity for redundancy and ubiquity. We cannot expect to provide broadband connectivity to 100% rural and remote areas through only terrestrial means. We must strengthen and expand our satellite broadband sector.

NITI Aayog is working with DoT to expedite the implementation of BharatNet through Public Private Partnership which would give a greater role to the private sector, thereby ensuring the induction of the latest technology and greater uptake or usage.

NITI Aayog is similarly supporting the National Broadband Mission.

We have worked with DoT on Right of Way issues to expedite fibre rollouts and telecom infrastructure deployment. On the one hand, states and local authorities and on the other hand, Central Government Ministries like Railways, Highways, Power and Natural Gas, Environment and Forest etc., need to accept the criticality of telecom infrastructure and actively facilitate its rollout.

As a part of the National Broadband Mission, DoT is creating a Broadband Readiness Index for states that would measure infrastructure availability and a positive policy environment, which should hopefully sensitize them in this regard.  Broadband for All is a national imperative.

 We are also aiding them to open up the satellite communications sector so as to spread broadband to rural and remote areas, ensure robust multimodal connectivity and tap the full potential of IoTs and location-based services.

The whole regulatory environment for telecom needs to be conducive to greater investment, innovation and rapid deployment.  

There needs to be considerable simplification of the licensing regime. Greater ease of doing business and a more technology-neutral approach are the need of the hour.  Complicated ex-ante systems must be replaced with Trust based authorizations combined with effective deterrence.

A case in point is the recent progressive change in the Other Service Provider Licensing regime which will greatly benefit our IT services sector and facilitate remote working. This was a case of the pandemic highlighting the need for changes that may otherwise have taken a long time to materialize.

We should use this crisis to bring about many other such reforms. For example, the pandemic highlighted the need for online recharges, smartphone universality, nationwide ration cards, and subsidy transferability.

I believe that India’s Universal Service Obligation Fund can be used much more effectively to encourage infrastructure creation and innovative new schemes for universal broadband connectivity. Its Rules allow for this, and it has the required corpus.

The pandemic has also heightened the need for secure and resilient communications, which means enhancing our presence in global supply chains and greater participation in IPR and standard-setting as far as advanced telecom technologies are concerned.

In summary, I can assure you that while there was always a huge push towards digital connectivity and applications and awareness of their impact. There is a strong and renewed emphasis on this critical aspect of national development.