NEW DELHI -- The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to herald a broadband revolution through its ambitious Digital India initiative aimed at providing government services online to citizens nationwide by 2019. It may be setting its sights too high.
In addition to introducing e-governance and e-services on a massive scale, the program seeks to bring about broadband connectivity in 250,000 villages, universal phone connectivity, 400,000 public Internet access points, Wi-Fi in 250,000 schools and universities, and public Wi-Fi hot spots for citizens. The program is expected to directly create 17 million jobs and indirectly create 85 million jobs.
However, the current abysmal state of Internet and broadband connectivity in Asia's third-largest economy does not seem to gel well with the $18 billion project seeking to integrate government departments and citizens, even in the most remote parts of the country.
How slow can you go?
According to the State of the Internet report for the first quarter of 2015 by content delivery network giant Akamai, India's average connection speed was 2.3 megabits per second, the second-lowest in the Asia-Pacific region, marginally ahead of Indonesia's 2.2 Mbps.
India's "peak" connection speed stood at 17.4 Mbps, the lowest in the region, while Singapore's was the fastest, at 98.5 Mbps, the report said. The global average connection speed was 5 Mbps, while the average peak connection speed was 29.1 Mbps.
Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst and group CEO of IT advisory Greyhound Research, said rural connectivity is central to the success of the Digital India program. With the absence of proper broadband and Internet connectivity, rural India falls behind when it comes to access to basic services such as mobile and net banking, which are imperative for financial inclusion, the analyst said.
"Indian towns and villages are at the helm of accepting digital transformation," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. "However, only 15% of India has access to basic Internet. It is time-critical that rural India gets access to high-speed Internet facilities to enhance their state of living."
Prageet Aeron, an assistant professor at the New Delhi-based International Institute of Management and an expert on the telecommunications sector, said state-run telecom company BSNL has a huge role to play in ensuring that rural India gets high-speed Internet connectivity.
"Private players like Bharti Airtel and Reliance may not show that much interest in rural India, so BSNL will need to set up an appropriate broadband network pan-India," he said.
One of the "least connected"
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), meanwhile, remains concerned over the slow penetration rate of broadband in India. Of the country's 1.25 billion people, roughly 100 million are broadband subscribers. And of that group, nearly 85 million are mobile device users.
Bharti Airtel (22.63 million subscribers), Vodafone (20.30 million), BSNL (18.02 million), Idea Cellular (15.01 million) and Reliance Communications Group (8.08 million) are the top five service providers, controlling an 83.4% share of the market for broadband subscriptions as of the end of April.
According to a recent TRAI report, India is among the 42 "least connected" countries, and ranks 129th among 166 nations in terms of information and communications technology access, use and skills. Among the countries ranked above India are Indonesia (106), Sri Lanka (116), Sudan (122), Bhutan (123) and Kenya (124). For fixed broadband penetration, India ranks 125th.
During TRAI's consultations with stakeholders on broadband connectivity, problems related to infrastructure, spectrum and a multilayered decision-making structure for building a national optical fiber network have been identified.
The telecom watchdog recommends such measures as an immediate overhaul of the decision-making process for the optical fiber network, which has been "stymied" by the standard bureaucratic red tape; aligning spectrum bands with globally harmonized bands to achieve interference-free co-existence and economies of scale; and encouraging local and foreign companies to build "data center parks."