Chattanooga, a small town of 171,000, in Tennessee, US, was once dubbed the dirtiest place in America. Today, it is famous, but for a different reason altogether—it is among the few places with internet speeds at 1Gbps, 50 times the average household internet speed the country enjoys.
Ever since, business prospects of the city underwent a sea-change—from zero venture capital in 2009 to more than five organised funds with investable capital over $50 million in 2014. It has opened up a bunch of opportunities for tech entrepreneurs while generating employment in the city—creating a mini Silicon Valley.
Closer home, the Startup Village—a technology based incubator in Kochi—is working on encouraging and facilitating young entrepreneurs to set up their own establishment. Their goal is to set up 1,000 technology start-ups in 10 years.
They are closer to achieving this as it is the only region in India to enjoy 1Gbps internet speeds. The government of Kerala drafted its own Technology Startup Policy 2014, which aims at providing fully-furnished and ready-to-use plug-and-play infrastructure with a maximum 2Gbps internet connectivity that would help set up incubators that could provide electricity, water and security facilities.
Many countries are recognising the role of the internet as a fundamental requirement for progress and, in doing so, have ensured that it must be made available as easily as other utilities like electricity, gas and water to citizens.
In China, as LTE spreads, the establishment of tower-sharing policies and action to increase coverage of telcos, 4G adoption has become widespread. Chinese operators have deployed 4G coverage in their license areas by deploying base stations and Wi-Fi hotspots across the country.
By the end of June 2015, China Mobile’s 4G customer base reached 190 million, accounting for 23% of its customers. By effectively utilising the policy push from the government, these companies consistently grew their networks.
‘Broadband China’ is a national strategy with broadband access rates for urban (20Mbps) and rural households (4Mbps). For some developed cities, it will be 100Mbps. China has defined separate goals for 2020 as a part of a national strategy. In the US, the FCC is debating to change the definition of broadband by raising minimum download speeds from 4Mbps to 25Mbps.
Many nations are far ahead of us in bridging the digital divide. It is no more about providing basic internet services, but about high-speed broadband which can transform a community. Our current average speed is 2.4Mbps; we have to increase this to 20Mbps.
As per the State of Broadband 2015 report, 148 countries have a National Broadband Plan, including India. The challenge lies in rolling out this policy.
The real problem is the lack of collaborative effort to increase access to broadband and the right infrastructure. Internet penetration in India is at 19%, while it is 46% in China.
While the government must act to formulate and approve required regulatory frameworks, private players too must be willing to invest in the latest technology to ensure high-speed internet.
Some steps have been taken—like the revision of the NOFN to BharatNet and an increased budget of R72,000 crore (from R20,000 crore)—but a lot more needs to be done. Broadband has already generated 9 million direct and indirect jobs in India.
We need to understand the impact high-speed internet could have on literacy rates. If broadband was to be treated as a utility, teachers from municipal schools could go beyond linear means of teaching and demonstrate concepts better, while measuring progress of students.
A Deloitte report, Broadband—The Lifeline of Digital India, states: “Broadband has been transforming many economies and rapidly becoming a utility. Economic growth can be achieved when more people have easy access to information, retail and service sectors.”
Making broadband a utility is easier said than done. Various stakeholders must work towards this goal, which is part of the Digital India initiative. Understanding what our obstacles are, what needs to be done to achieve this and why this is important, is the first step forward.
The author is CEO, Sterlite Technologies