The National Digital Communications Policy-2018 envisions big goals to gain from digital revolution but is silent on implementation.
: 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.
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."
Union Telecom Minister
India is at least five years away from achieving its rural teledensity objective.