Broadband for all: Why we aren’t talking about the quality of digital infra?

If India invests in high-quality new optical fibre network, upgrade or replace existing defective cables, and lay bend- and pressure-resistant fibre cables to increase FTTH (fibre to the home) capabilities, we will go a long way towards becoming a world leader

Broadband for all: Why we aren’t talking about the quality of digital infra?
Illustration: Rohnit Phore

Infrastructure is the need of the hour … we’ve all heard the battle cry. We all tend to agree that more infrastructure in India is key to our development. However, not much discussion has been given to the importance of the quality of said infrastructure. While this need applies to various sectors, it is a guiding force in the digital communications space. All great communication begins with connection, and the quality of communication matters.

So, how do we define quality infrastructure? The APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) 2014 guidebook for quality infrastructure in emerging nations focused on three main areas—life-cycle costs, safety assurance, and environmental and other impacts.

In three years, however, the APEC revised its guidelines to include the comprehensive elements of alignment with development strategy for each nation, economical and financial soundness, local development including job-creation and knowledge transfer, as well as the impact of infrastructure projects on social and environmental sustainability.

All Indians are awarded the right to access the internet as a fundamental right by the Supreme Court. Talking about the visionary Digital India mission, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated: “India has seen a dream of Digital India. From the latest science to the latest technology, everything should be available at the tip of one’s finger.” Our data-hungry citizens have certainly grown to expect it.

To achieve the vision of providing broadband for all, and leverage technological advances such as 5G and Internet of Things (IoT) in India, we will need to rely heavily on high-quality infrastructure. A World Bank study found that the growth of a developing country’s economy is directly proportional to the quality of its infrastructure. The World Bank defines quality infrastructure as “…the ecosystem of public and private institutions as well as legal and regulatory frameworks and practices that establish and implement standardisation, accreditation, metrology, and conformity assessment.”

Better quality infrastructure is also related to reduction of diseases, and improved access to education and healthcare. Incorporating quality as an integral part of our growth plans ensures we are inclusive, enables sustainability, and environment-friendly projects (Japan International Cooperation Agency). Additionally, greater quality allows us to minimise damage from natural disasters.

In developing nations, it is often attractive for public officials to focus on lower-cost goods to meet their immediate needs, but establishing a stringent policy of evaluating life-cycle costs and adhering to international safety standards is essential to our country’s success and quality of communication. Failure to do so could result in higher costs down the road, safety issues, significant project delays, and damage to the environment.
High count, bend- and pressure-resistant optical fibre networks, quality towers, and Wi-Fi hotspots are significant contributors towards future-proofing our country. Indians have demonstrated a voracious appetite for data consumption, and with 65% of the country yet to get online (EY, 2017), there has been a strong push towards expanding connectivity throughout the country. However, there has been little discussion about the importance of setting quality standards for our infrastructure while we continue to expand our reach.

Another innovation that could be considered is the 5G wireless tower technology. Globally, countries are beginning to utilise 5G wireless towers that support faster downloads and large amounts of data. As with any technology, it is not without challenges—more numbers of them will have to be installed around the country—but they are smaller and more compact versus traditional towers. Additionally, these towers are more energy-efficient, and aesthetically pleasing. Introducing 5G technology in the country will then allow the government to fully realise the mission of developing and sustaining 100 smart cities that run on interconnected IoT devices.
The National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP, 2018) outlines the goal of introducing 5 million Wi-Fi hotspots by 2020 and 10 million by 2022. While this is a good start, we will need rapid acceleration of the speed of installation, and an exponential increase in the number of hotspots being introduced. A streamlined and less bureaucratic process for Wi-Fi providers is required to grow the numbers quickly.

Another benefit of investing in quality infrastructure projects across the country is to advance the ‘Make in India’ mission to grow the use of homegrown technology and improve local employment opportunities. While we certainly enjoyed a boost in economy, we still have 18.6 million unemployed in India (International Labour Organisation). A boost in large-scale infrastructure projects will create employment for a vast ecosystem of products, services and resources, while a focus on quality products and offerings will ensure the safety of our citizens.

Let’s look at some real-world examples where investing in quality infrastructure led to better results, beginning with the Delhi Metro project. Built in three phases, and relying on Japanese expertise, this system now serves over 2.5 million passengers per day, delivers greater safety (through women-only carriages, among other things), and the Delhi corporation staff can obtain timely technical assistance from Japanese experts. During the construction, care was also taken to ensure the safety of construction workers.

Similarly, the Japanese government is assisting other Asian countries achieve their individual development goals through quality infrastructure, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Bangladesh, apart from their own country of Japan. This is being done through the adoption of leading international quality standards for infrastructure, including the APEC guidebook on quality of infrastructure development and investment (2017). Other standards involve G7 Ise-Shima principles for promoting quality infrastructure investment (2016), G20 Hangzhou MDBs Joint Declaration of Aspirations on Actions to Support Infrastructure Investment (2016), and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (2015).

Other world organisations such as the Global Procurement Initiative (GPI) train public officials in emerging economies to learn the evaluation of total cost of ownership for goods that involve large-scale infrastructure projects. In India, officials from the state of Maharashtra have been trained on advanced life-cycle cost analysis training from the GPI, and officials from other states and the Centre could leverage this as well.
The price of not investing in high-quality digital infrastructure is real, and the success of such undertakings usually rides on alignment and cooperation between all the stakeholders that are required to execute such a mission.

Eminent Japanese engineer and statistician Genichi Taguchi eloquently put it: “Cost is more important than quality, but quality is the best way to reduce cost.” In a succinct sentence, Taguchi San stressed upon the importance of investing in quality to reap longer-term rewards and sustainability. If India invests in high-quality new optical fibre network, upgrade or replace existing defective cables, and lay bend- and pressure-resistant fibre cables to increase FTTH (fibre to the home) capabilities, we will go a long way towards becoming a world leader.

(Research inputs by Chandana Bala)

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