The Indian government’s Digital India vision is an exciting path towards embracing digital technologies and reaping the benefits in a host of areas. For example, broadband connectivity to cover all 250,000 gram panchayats by December 2016 and universal access to mobile connectivity for 40,000 villages by 2018. In the last one year, it has also initiated measures to advance communication infrastructure, enhance connectivity and drive internet uptake. E-services have begun to pick up momentum and electronic transactions related to e-governance projects have almost doubled in 2015. More than 12,000 rural post office branches have been linked digitally.
While all the plans are in place, the obvious foundation of Digital India – the requisite technology infrastructure to sustain all these programmes – is unfortunately speckled and not aligned.
Take the example of the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) (renamed as BharatNet). The initial plan was to connect 100,000 gram panchayats by fibre optics. This was later scaled down to 50,000 and, according to data up to March 2015, only about 20,000 gram panchayats have been covered. A committee constituted last year reviewed the project and proposed a modified project that includes almost three times the fibre length, a mix of infrastructure technologies, at almost twice the capex (R73,000 crore)!
This is a clear example of a well-intended plan to provide quality broadband to every citizen. However, on hindsight it has been nothing but poor execution due to adoption of only traditional technology implementation approaches. What the government needs to do is adopt a robust and sustainable technology framework that scales at an affordable cost. It is time we forget the older hardware-centric approaches based on closed, proprietary technology that causes vendor lock-in and slows down the pace of innovation. The core benefit of newer software defined models are speed, cost reduction, openness and scalability that is unparalleled. The newer models can help gain the edge in improving services performance while bringing down operational costs.
Open standards are one of the foundations of this new architecture. Adopting open standards is something every government agency can start doing now, with any new procurement. The agency simply needs to add a requirement that the vendor adheres to open standards. Working with multi-vendor networks are a key means of controlling costs and prevents vendor lock-in and ensures continuous innovation in the functionality and performance of each component. The components of the new architecture are flexible, and agencies need not transition all at once. Instead, they can adopt components incrementally, as needs arise.
The finalisation of long pending telecom policy issues such as spectrum trading/ sharing, harmonisation coupled with preference for open source IT applications indicates creation of such seamless digital services delivery infrastructure. Choosing the right partners, creating differentiated offerings and transforming business models will be key ingredients for success in this new digital era.
The writer is senior regional director, Brocade India & SAARC