In a bid to provide a massive push to connectivity and ICT adoption, India’s government has formally unveiled an ambitious initiative called Digital India. Launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Indian capital of Delhi earlier today, the initiative endeavors to create a digital infrastructure for delivering government services.
“I dream of a digital India, where government services are easily available to citizens, where access to information knows no barriers,” said Modi. “I dream of a digital India, where government is open and governance is transparent. I dream of a digital India where the world looks to India for the next big idea.”
Indeed, Digital India is nothing if not ambitious. The project aims to put a complete end to the import of technology and electronics by 2020 while creating 100 million jobs.
Authorities are also looking to take advantage of IT to improve the efficiency of various government departments and make them more transparent to Indian consumers. In total, there are nine components to the program: broadband highways; universal access to mobile connectivity; public Internet access; e-governance; eKranti (the electronic delivery of services); information for all; electronics manufacturing; IT for jobs; and Early Harvest Program, through which authorities are looking to deploy biometric attendance systems in central government offices in Delhi.
Reducing the use of paper and digitizing government documents is a key objective. Authorities have already launched a so-called Digital Locker System, which enables the sharing of e-documents across agencies, as well as a mobile app (called MyGov) for citizen engagement.
The Digital India event was attended by a number of senior industry executives — including Cyrus Mistry, the chairman of Tata Group, Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries Ltd. (RIL) , and Sunil Bharti Mittal, the chairman of Bharti Enterprises — and all the major groups have announced their own initiatives to support India’s digital development.
Mukesh Ambani, for instance, has announced plans to invest 2,500 billion Indian rupees ($39.2 billion) in this area, besides indicating that his Reliance Jio outfit will be launching cheap handsets to bring connectivity to lower-income segments of the market. He has also bragged that Reliance Jio’s 4G network will be the bedrock of Digital India. (See RJio to Launch 4G in December.)
Bharti Group, meanwhile, aims to invest INR1,000 billion ($15.7 billion) over the next five years to help India realize its digital ambitions. And Aditya Birla Groupplans to spend INR445 billion ($6.9 billion) over the next five years on infrastructure and digital development.
No doubt, Digital India represents a huge opportunity for the telecom industry. The broadband highways initiative, for instance, will require operators to provide connectivity to more than 42,300 villages. Authorities also want common service centers to be made available in 250,000 villages across the country by March 2017, connecting 150,000 post offices to serve consumers.
For service providers, Digital India is clearly likely to expand the data market. As more consumers begin taking advantage of data technology to use government services, operators will need to expand their networks, services and applications.
eKranti, another component of the program, should also provide new opportunities for service providers and vendors, aiming — as it does — to deliver services in education, health, agriculture, banking and other verticals through mobile broadband technologies.
But many hurdles need to be crossed before the vision becomes a reality. A key impediment is the lack of basic communications infrastructure. The National Optical Fiber Network (NOFN), a separate initiative to provide broadband connectivity across India, may need to be fast-tracked, having been delayed for the last four years. As part of that initiative, government-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) has been working on updating 30-year-old exchanges with IP-based technology to manage voice as well as data services. It also has been deploying WiFi hotspots across India.
Above all, it is still unclear which government agency is supposedly responsible for the implementation of the Digital India project. And as with the separate Smart Cities plan, the business models also need to be defined, besides the precise role of the private sector. (See Potholes Lurk in Indian Smart City Project.)