Baraut was the unlikeliest place to find the answers. A nondescript town of traders and farmers in Uttar Pradesh, it was my first stop on a recent field trip to assess the spread of telecommunications in the country’s hinterland. Ravi, the town’s largest mobile phone retailer, bragged that his shop attracted customers from villages 20km away. As we discussed the preferences of rural customers over jaggery-sweetened tea, I couldn’t help but notice Ravi’s hand involuntarily reaching for his computer mouse every few minutes. He had dialled into the Internet through a mobile data card and was using Google to look up the correct posture for some yoga asanas. Later that afternoon, in a small village called Banmali, I was told a mobile operator that had recently launched services had won a large share of customers from leading competitors because, “unke network mein EDGE hai !” (it has an EDGE network), a technology that facilitates Internet use on the mobile phone. India’s digital generation is on the move —striding through the world of mobile voice into the land of the Internet, cocking a snook at the on-again-off-again third-generation auctions.
Photograph: Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Will the next decade herald India’s entry into the Internet age? What online services and modes of Internet access will India’s digital generation embrace? Who or what will catalyse the birth and growth of broadband in India? While Baraut didn’t offer ready answers, it did offer invaluable clues.
That information and communication technology has large social and economic multipliers is widely accepted. Ubiquitous broadband promises to democratize access to information, alleviate important livelihood constraints and improve factor productivity, paving the way for inclusive growth. While these benefits are compelling, often they don’t accrue to the original investors, limiting their attractiveness to private capital and necessitating public investment. As we are painfully aware, India has had a poor record in driving attractive return on public capital. How do we break this conundrum? It is time to conceive an ambitious broadband inclusion agenda. This agenda should unleash healthy competition between members of Parliament to have their constituencies declared “100% broadband included”, just like the National Literacy Mission and, more recently, the financial inclusion programme have achieved.
To start, we need to define metrics for broadband inclusion that are easy to measure and report. Let me offer three critical dimensions —availability, accessibility and adoption. Past efforts have been crippled by a narrow focus on one to the exclusion of the others. Availability indicators could include the fraction of tehsil headquarters with fibre optic connectivity or the proportion of census towns in the constituency with at least 256 kbps Internet connectivity. Accessibility would encompass, for example, the number of Internet-enabled common service centres (CSCs) in each constituency. Finally, indicators for adoption might include civic services offered online through CSCs, connectivity between primary health centres and nodal hospitals, and local e-governance solutions at the panchayat level. Taken together, these metrics offer a holistic assessment of not just deployment of broadband but also its benefits. Further, they lend themselves to setting up interim milestones (e.g., 30% of tehsil headquarters on fibre optic backbone, a CSC within 20km of every village, etc.) towards long-term goals. These interim milestones are very important resting halts in multi-year journeys of this scale and ambition.
Once the metrics and goals for broadband inclusion are clearly articulated, it would become easier to enlist important stakeholders who stand to benefit. Here, it would be best to start with using broadband to accelerate and bridge key gaps in flagship programmes of national importance. The human resource development (HRD) ministry has already announced a plan to connect 5,000 colleges under the National Mission on Education. Broadband can help improve the quality of the curriculum and pedagogy. The National Rural Health Mission promises acceleration of the Accredited Social Health Activist (Asha) programme. Broadband could help improve monitoring, training and support for Ashas at a lower cost. The National Skills Development Mission seeks to build capacity to train over 10 million people each year. Online vocational courses delivered through broadband connectivity would be pivotal to its success. There is further potential to use broadband to accelerate the deployment of, and benefits from, transformational programmes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and National Unique ID. Broadband inclusion of this scope would serve as a magnet to attract private innovators and social entrepreneurs. Private companies could use this platform to explore new markets for their services and create services for these new markets. Civil society could provide the missing glue that links public investment and private capital with effective on-the-ground delivery models tapping local resources.
The possibilities are enormous. The “killer app” that holds the key to unfetter India’s digital generation cannot be preordained and will need to be discovered. It is likely there will be many, not just one. Ravi, in Baraut, laid out his billion-dollar business proposition to us as we bid goodbye. “Imported Chinese multimedia handsets are currently the rage. Make one that works with a Nokia battery and a Nokia charger”. A proven success adapted to the local context offering a playground for Indian ingenuity. Therein lie the answers.
Arvind Subramanian is partner and director, The Boston Consulting Group. Views are personal. Comment at email@example.com