Dig­i­tal Drive

The Na­tional Dig­i­tal Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Pol­icy-2018 en­vi­sions big goals to gain from dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion but is silent on im­ple­men­ta­tion.

India Business Journal - - CONTENTS - IBJ BU­REAU

: The Na­tional Dig­i­tal Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Pol­icy-2018 en­vi­sions big goals to gain from dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion but is silent on im­ple­men­ta­tion.

In­late Septem­ber, the Na­tional Dig­i­tal Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Pol­icy-2018 (NDCP) got the Union Cabi­net's nod. The NDCP, which re­places the Na­tional Tele­com Pol­icy-2012 (NTP), was in the pub­lic do­main for about five months. Af­ter ex­ten­sive feed­back from the pub­lic, ex­perts as well as all stake­hold­ers con­cerned, the new pol­icy has fi­nally come into force.

The new pol­icy, which re­places tele­com with dig­i­tal, makes an earnest at­tempt to broaden the scope of mod­ern telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion with a dig­i­tal di­men­sion. The new pol­icy is aimed at ad­dress­ing the mod­ern needs of the In­dian dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion sec­tor. It has been for­mu­lated to fa­cil­i­tate In­dia's ef­fec­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion in the global dig­i­tal econ­omy. The pol­icy out­lines a set of lofty goals, most of which are to be achieved by 2022. "Digi­ti­sa­tion is a key driver of global econ­omy, and the gov­ern­ment has taken many ini­tia­tives to make In­dia a leader in this space," notes Tele­com Min­is­ter Manoj Sinha.

The NDCP out­lines three ma­jor mis­sions - Con­nect In­dia, Pro­pel In­dia and Se­cure In­dia - to achieve its ob­jec­tives by 2022. A ma­jor­ity of tele­com com­pa­nies and their as­so­ci­a­tions have wel­comed the new pol­icy, mark­ing the move as a land­mark step in the coun­try's telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion sec­tor.

Lofty ob­jec­tives

Un­der the new pol­icy, the gov­ern­ment aims to pro­vide uni­ver­sal broad­band con­nec­tiv­ity at 50 mbps to ev­ery ci­ti­zen. It has kept a tar­get of pro­vid­ing 1 gbps of con­nec­tiv­ity to all Gram Pan­chay­ats by 2020 and 10 gbps by 2022.

One of the ma­jor ob­jec­tives of NDCP is to en­sure con­nec­tiv­ity to all un­cov­ered ar­eas and at­tract in­vest­ments of $100 bil­lion (over Rs 7,00,000 crore) in the dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion sec­tor. Be­sides this, it has set a tar­get of train­ing 10 lakh peo­ple for build­ing new-age skills.

The pol­icy has set many am­bi­tious goals for 2022 such as pro­vi­sion of broad­band for all, cre­at­ing 40 lakh ad­di­tional jobs in the dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion sec­tor, en­hanc­ing con­tri­bu­tion of the dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion sec­tor to 8 per cent of the coun­try's GDP and pro­pel­ling the coun­try to the top50 na­tions in the ICT De­vel­op­ment In­dex of ITU.

Ex­pand­ing the in­ter­net of things (IoT) ecosys­tem to 500 crore con­nected de­vices is a ma­jor ob­jec­tive of the NDCP. The IoT is a net­work of phys­i­cal de­vices, ve­hi­cles, home ap­pli­ances and other items embed­ded with elec­tron­ics, soft­ware, sen­sors, ac­tu­a­tors and con­nec­tiv­ity. This en­ables these things to con­nect, col­lect and ex­change data, cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for more di­rect in­te­gra­tion of the phys­i­cal world into com­puter-based sys­tems. IoT re­sults in im­prove­ment in ef­fi­ciency, eco­nomic ben­e­fits and re­duced hu­man ex­er­tions.

An­other tar­get of the new pol­icy is to es­tab­lish a com­pre­hen­sive data pro­tec­tion regime for dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion that safe­guards pri­vacy, au­ton­omy and choice of in­di­vid­u­als. In this way, it will en­force ac­count­abil­ity through ap­pro­pri­ate in­sti­tu­tional mech­a­nisms to as­sure cit­i­zens of safe and se­cure dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­fra­struc­ture and ser­vices.

Miss­ing in ac­tion

For all its lofty ob­jec­tives, the NDCP does not have any fresh ideas in terms of ad­dress­ing the is­sues be­ing faced by the tele­com sec­tor. The pol­icy re­states the Cen­tre's in­tent to ad­dress the prob­lems. How­ever, it nei­ther

spells out how it plans to achieve the stated ob­jec­tives nor gives any spe­cific time­frame to im­ple­ment the var­i­ous pro­pos­als. There is need to learn from sim­i­lar chal­lenges faced dur­ing im­ple­men­ta­tion of the ob­jec­tives of the ear­lier NTP-2012.

NTP-2012 had out­lined a sim­i­lar vi­sion of broad­band for all to bridge the dig­i­tal di­vide. How­ever, its im­ple­men­ta­tion fell woe­fully short of achiev­ing the de­sired ob­jec­tives within the de­sired time­lines, specif­i­cally around ru­ral tele­den­sity and broad­band sub­scrip­tions among other ob­jec­tives. While ru­ral tele­den­sity has in­creased from 39 per cent in 2011 to 56 per cent by the end of 2017, it still fell way short of the promised 70 per cent mark. The cur­rent growth rate in tele­den­sity of about 3 to 3.5 per cent an­nu­ally in­di­cates that the coun­try is at least five years away from achiev­ing this ob­jec­tive. Ex­perts opine that the growth rate can still be ac­cel­er­ated through ju­di­cious use of the Uni­ver­sal Ser­vice Obli­ga­tion Fund (USOF), which has a cur­rent unutilised bal­ance of Rs 48,372 crore.

Broadly, there are four ma­jor is­sues plagu­ing the tele­com sec­tor that need im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion. First, the in­dus­try is go­ing through a fi­nan­cial cri­sis, as a re­sult of which five op­er­a­tors have shut shop. Over­all debt bur­den of the re­main­ing play­ers has bur­geoned to alarm­ing lev­els due to ex­pen­sive spec­trum auc­tions and huge re­duc­tion in cash flows.

Sec­ond, tele­com con­sumers are no bet­ter to­day than they were two decades ago when it comes to qual­ity of ser­vices. Call drops, un­wanted tele­mar­ket­ing calls, patchy data net­works and un­fair prac­tices to get users pay more are ram­pant. To make mat­ters worse, con­sumers do not have ac­cess to a re­li­able and neu­tral com­plaint-re­dress mech­a­nism. Third, pub­lic sec­tor com­pa­nies in this sec­tor con­tinue to lan­guish un­der high man­power costs and red tape. Fourth, there is a big worry over the huge im­ports of tele­com equip­ment and de­vices at a time when In­dia's trade deficit is bal­loon­ing.

The new pol­icy ac­knowl­edges these prob­lems, but al­most all the so­lu­tions of­fered find men­tion in ear­lier reg­u­la­tions and vi­sion state­ments. Some of the ma­jor tar­gets listed in the 2012 pol­icy are still to be achieved. For ex­am­ple, the min­i­mum broad­band speed is set at 512 kbps at present even though the 2012 pol­icy had en­vis­aged min­i­mum broad­band speed of 2 mbps by 2015.

In­stead of delv­ing into why these tar­gets were missed and how things can be im­proved, the NDC-2018 lists out more and new tar­gets. Rather than re-stat­ing old mis­sion state­ments, the Cen­tre should have fo­cused on putting to­gether a road map, ex­plain­ing how it will ex­e­cute these ini­tia­tives. For in­stance, on the is­sue of re­duc­ing fi­nan­cial bur­den on the tele­com op­er­a­tors, the pol­icy merely re­states that the plan is to ra­tio­nalise gov­ern­ment taxes and levies apart from giv­ing crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture sta­tus to the in­dus­try.

The re­al­ity is that these pro­pos­als have been pushed by the De­part­ment of Tele­com for sev­eral years. How­ever, they have been blocked by the Fi­nance Min­istry, which has so far seen the sec­tor only as a non-tax rev­enue gen­er­a­tor for the ex­che­quer. If the Cen­tre re­ally wants to re­ally pre­pare the coun­try's tele­com sec­tor for the up­com­ing dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion, it must go be­yond giv­ing mis­sion state­ments.

"Digi­ti­sa­tion is a key driver of global econ­omy, and the gov­ern­ment has taken many ini­tia­tives to make In­dia a leader in this space."

MANOJ SINHA

Union Tele­com Min­is­ter

In­dia is at least five years away from achiev­ing its ru­ral tele­den­sity ob­jec­tive.

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