A fisherman in a West Bengal village sells his days catch directly to customers via a messaging app, and receives payments through a mobile banking app. In doing this, he has managed to bypass unscrupulous middlemen and has a thriving small business that is based on direct communication with his customers. A farmer in UP no longer relies on local amateurs to predict the onset of the monsoon season. He accesses weather information on his phone to plan his sowing schedule. He has also stopped making the arduous trek to the bank to repay his agricultural loan and instead pays his EMIs through his mobile app.
A 20-something year old in Bangalore watches Narcos on his mobile app as he travels to college.
Such scenarios are already an accepted part of the Indian social fabric, thanks to the government’s Digital India initiative. With the objective of empowering citizens, through easy access, with critical information in areas ranging from healthcare to education, labour laws and finance, this program is designed to leverage increasing mobile connectivity and smartphone penetration in the country. On the mobile telephony front, we have rapidly progressed from 2G to 3G and 4G, and even 5G connectivity is not too distant a dream! This is good news for India as a judicious mix of 2G, 3G and 4G can help take our digitization drive to the furthest corners of the country.
The sheer size of our country coupled with its huge population and incredible diversity, makes it difficult to roll out homogenized solutions for all its citizens at one go. There is also a significant developmental gap between urban and rural areas at this point in time. Consider the facts. Current overall Internet penetration in the country stands at 31 percent, while urban India currently has 60 percent Internet penetration. Even as we work on extending networks to reach smaller and more remote areas of the country, the truth is that at this point, 4G and even 3G is not universally accessible. In those remote and somewhat inaccessible parts of the country, 2G is still the accepted way of life. Focussing only on 3G or 4G will restrict benefits to a majority of 60–70 percent of the population. This move to go digital is about inclusivity and collective growth, and a combination of all available networks can help ensure that all Indians are digitally empowered at the same time.
Focussing only on 3G or 4G will restrict benefits to a majority of 60–70 percent of the population. This move to go digital is about inclusivity and collective growth, and a combination of all available networks can help ensure that all Indians are digitally empowered at the same time.
There is also the question of affordability. India recently beat China to the enviable position of the fastest growing economy in the world. With greater spending power, there has been an increased penetration of smartphones into rural regions, fuelled in part by falling prices. Reports indicate that India’s smartphone user base grew to over 300 million in December 2016. But if we delve deeper into the matter, we will find that the distribution of handsets stands at 30-40-30 for basic phones, feature phones and smartphones, respectively, even today. 2G with its associated lower costs and easy connectivity is a viable option for rural societies and we are already witnessing the impact of increased Internet access on important socio-political events within the country. Visionary programs like the PM’s Jan Dhan Yojana aimed at the financial inclusion of rural populations are also closely tied in with mobility and affordable widespread mobile access. There is also the matter of different requirements. While the college student watching Narcos on his phone needs 4G for video streaming, the bulk of India’s population still largely uses voice. They don’t need 4G right away, but they do need a sound 2G infrastructure for their calls. They will also begin to use mobile Internet through 2G, and possibly with time and increasing comfort with the technology, move onto 3G-based news and information and then onto live streaming and 4G.
The journey to a fully Digital India will take place in a phased manner and in conjunction with related infrastructure development. The National Telecom Policy aims to increase mobile connectivity in rural areas to 70 percent by 2017, and ensure 100 percent mobile connectivity across the country by the end of this decade. At the same time, the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN), once completed, will strengthen the reach of wireless and broadband technologies to over 2,50,000 gram panchayats, giving a significant boost to initiatives such as the Jan Dhan Yojana. Till that time, 2G connectivity will ensure that even the most remote communities are not entirely cut off from the benefits of digitization.
India is at the cusp of massive transformation. Change of this kind does not come easy with a widely varying demographics, usage patterns, accessibility and even digital literacy. Hence, it is essential to implement a mix of 2G, 3G and 4G services to ensure that the entire country benefits from digital development, even as infrastructure is improved. Let no Indian be left behind in the country’s digital transformation.
(The author is a management consultant)