“Modi 3.0 must develop a inclusive strategy to become a global leader in digital infrastructure”

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The telecom industry’s significant investments in R&D, particularly in 5G and 6G technologies, are crucial for driving digital transformation and achieving Vision India@2047 goals, fostering innovation and global competitiveness, says Digital Infrastructure Providers Association (DIPA) Director General Tilak Raj Dua in a candid conversation with J P Gupta

Excerpts:

What specific reforms in the telecom sector under PM Modi’s previous tenure that set the groundwork for India’s digital transformation?

During PM Narendra Modi’s tenure, India’s telecom sector underwent significant changes, leading to the Digital India Campaign in 2015, aiming to create a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. The campaign was based on three pillars: Infrastructure as a Fundamental Service for All Citizens, On-Demand Governance and Services, and Empowering Citizens through Digital Means.

The National Digital Communications Policy 2018 aimed to boost internet penetration and digital communications, while the National Broadband Mission aimed to provide affordable broadband to all homes and institutions. BharatNet initiative deployed 40.6 lakh kilometers of fiber by December 2023, providing 100 Mbps broadband to 2.13 lakh gram panchayats across 6.25 lakh villages, with over 6.16 lakh rural FTTH connections developed as of February 2024.

The PM-WANI (Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface) initiative, which debuted in December 2020, sought to greatly boost public Wi-Fi hotspots, particularly in underdeveloped areas. By May 2024, roughly 2 lakh PM-WANI hotspots had been installed. The Production-Linked Incentive (PLI) plan, worth ₹12,195 crore over 5 years, supported domestic manufacturing of telecom and networking equipment, enhancing the local value chain.

India’s digital transformation is rooted in reforms like Digital Locker, eSign, eHospital, and UPI and Aadhaar. Digital infrastructure, consisting of interconnected platforms, has made significant progress, with over 30 crore Jan Dhan accounts, 117 crore Aadhaar cards, and 50 crore mobile and internet subscribers.

Digital infrastructure is vital for India’s socio-economic development, promoting inclusive growth, efficient governance, and citizen empowerment. Investment in robust infrastructure and innovation can tackle challenges and achieve sustainable development goals.

In your opinion, what are the primary priorities and priority areas for the new government to position India as a worldwide leader in digital infrastructure?

To position India as a global leader in digital infrastructure, the new government must adopt a comprehensive strategy that addresses various dimensions of the digital ecosystem:

Expanding Internet connectivity: Accelerate programs such as the National Broadband Mission and BharatNet to enable high-speed internet connectivity in rural and remote areas, thereby bridging the digital divide and ensuring fair access to digital services.

Promoting Innovation in Emerging Technologies: Prioritize the advancement of technologies such as 5G, 6G, WiFi7, AI, IoT, blockchain, and quantum computing through significant R&D investments, supporting regulatory frameworks, and strategic relationships with global tech leaders and research institutes.

Strengthening Cyber security: Improve cyber security and data protection measures to foster digital trust and resilience while protecting key infrastructure and citizens’ data.

Encourage Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs): Promote PPPs to use private-sector expertise and resources for efficient infrastructure development, with supportive policy frameworks.

Investing in Skill Development: Encourage digital literacy and skill development in new technologies to create a future-ready workforce, engaging with academics and industry to ensure long-term skill upgrading.

Supporting Government Digital Initiatives: Promote economic growth and citizen empowerment through initiatives such as e-governance, digital citizen services, and smart city projects that demonstrate India’s digital potential.

Promoting Green Technologies: To reduce environmental effect and attract international investment, incorporate sustainable practices into digital infrastructure, such as renewable energy sources and energy-efficient data centers.

Empowering the Telecom Industry: Provide priority electricity connections, online billing systems, and smart meters at telecom sites to ensure a smooth infrastructure implementation.

Ensure inclusive digital growth: By implementing targeted programs to bridge the digital divide and improve digital literacy among underrepresented communities.

By focusing on these strategic areas, the government can establish a robust, sustainable, and inclusive digital infrastructure that drives economic growth, fosters innovation, enhances quality of life, and positions India as a global leader in the digital age.

What role can the telecom industry play in collaborating with the government to accelerate India’s digital transformation and meet the ‘Vision India@2047’ goals?

The telecom industry is critical to driving India’s digital transformation and fulfilling the ‘Vision India@2047’ goals through extensive partnership with the government. This cooperation has made significant contributions in a variety of domains:

Technological Innovation: The telecom sector’s significant investments in research and development, especially in 5G and 6G technologies, foster innovation and entrepreneurship, ensuring global competitiveness.

Workforce Development: The telecom industry is enhancing its innovation and production capacity by partnering with educational institutions and implementing targeted training programs to nurture a skilled workforce.

Local Manufacturing and Global Partnerships: The industry’s focus on local manufacturing and intellectual property development reduces import dependency, while strategic international partnerships enhance market access and global product showcase.

Open-Source Development: Promoting the use of open-source platforms for communication technologies fosters inclusivity and drives innovation. This approach democratizes access to advanced technology, stimulating further advancements in the field.

Infrastructure Development: The telecom industry’s evolution from 2G to 5G, with future plans for 6G, demonstrates significant progress in network capabilities. Government support for digital infrastructure development has been instrumental in facilitating these advancements.

5G Rollout and Expansion: The quick deployment of 5G in 740 districts in 21 months demonstrates strong coordination between industry and government. However, efforts to fiberize 65% of telecom towers and construct 12 lakh towers to prepare India for 5G are ongoing. The construction of 100 laboratories for 5G application development demonstrates our commitment to national digital accessibility.

Future-Ready Infrastructure: With the introduction of 5G and the impending launch of 6G, there is an increasing demand for novel infrastructure solutions like as tiny cells, fiber, and Wi-Fi integration. These are critical for meeting the expectations of developing technologies such as IoT, AR/VR, and AI.

Government Support and Policy Reforms: Significant policy reforms and robust telecom infrastructure installations by providers have enabled these advancements. Over the past decade, the number of towers has doubled to 8 lakhs, and optical fiber cable laid has increased from 11 lakh km to 40.6 lakh km by 2024.

The telecom industry’s infrastructure development fosters economic growth and improves people’s well-being, while government measures like Ease of Doing Business and reduced compliance burdens support business growth.

Through these crucial roles, the telecom industry is critical to accelerating India’s digital transformation, improving connectivity, and improving residents’ quality of life, hence significantly contributing to the Vision India@2047 goals. The convergence of public and digital infrastructure, which was hastened by the COVID-19 epidemic, has transformed digital service accessibility and is ready to help India’s economic growth and technical advancement.

How can India leverage its developing digital infrastructure to promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth in the years ahead?

India’s expanding digital infrastructure offers significant opportunities to drive innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth in the coming years through strategic initiatives:

Supporting Startups and Innovation: Establishing incubation centers, facilitating access to funding, and offering mentorship programs can nurture startups across sectors such as agriculture, healthcare, education, and fintech. These initiatives foster a conducive environment for innovative solutions to thrive.

Developing robust policy frameworks and regulatory sandboxes: Creating frameworks that support experimentation and investment in emerging technologies will stimulate innovation. Regulatory sandboxes provide a controlled environment for testing new ideas, encouraging risk-taking, and fostering growth in new sectors.

Promoting Digital Infrastructure Beyond Cities: Initiatives like the BharatNet project ensure rural and remote areas benefit from technological advancements, reducing the digital divide. This expanded access supports inclusive economic growth and enhances connectivity nationwide.

Upskilling and Training Programs: Offering training in AI, data analytics, cybersecurity, and emerging technologies prepares the workforce for future demands. These skills are crucial for driving innovation and entrepreneurship across various industries.

Boosting Digital Transactions and Financial Inclusion: E-commerce platforms, digital payment solutions like UPI and RuPay, and digital banking services facilitate seamless transactions, boosting economic growth and enhancing financial inclusion.

Transforming Industries through Digitalization: Integrating telemedicine, electronic health records, and remote monitoring in healthcare improves accessibility and quality of care. Digital transformation across sectors enhances efficiency and drives economic productivity.

Establishing Innovation Hubs and Centers of Excellence: Collaborative efforts between academia, industry, and government in innovation hubs drive cutting-edge research and development. These initiatives attract talent and investments and foster a culture of innovation.

Ensuring Data Privacy and Security: Providing secure digital government services builds citizen trust and enhances transparency. Robust data protection measures are essential for the widespread adoption of digital solutions.

Showcasing Opportunities Globally: Participating in investment summits and trade missions highlights India’s digital infrastructure opportunities. This global exposure attracts foreign direct investment (FDI) and promotes international collaboration, accelerating economic growth and innovation.

Intelligent Village Initiative: The Department of Telecommunications’ Intelligent Village Initiative utilizes 5G technology to bridge the rural-urban technological gap. This visionary program empowers rural areas in agriculture, education, healthcare, governance, and sustainability, promising digital inclusion and economic prosperity.

These strategic initiatives harness India’s growing digital infrastructure to stimulate innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. By fostering a supportive ecosystem and leveraging technological advancements, India can propel itself towards sustainable development and global leadership in the digital economy.

What problems or bottlenecks must be addressed to provide fair and inclusive digital access for all citizens, particularly those living in rural and remote areas?

Ensuring equitable and inclusive digital access for all residents, especially those in rural and distant locations, necessitates a comprehensive plan that addresses a variety of difficulties and constraints. One key barrier is the inequality in internet availability in different locations, emphasizing the necessity for high-speed access through projects such as BharatNet and the Digital Bharat Nidhi. Another major issue is the affordability of internet services and digital devices, which can be addressed through subsidies, cost-effective pricing strategies, and widespread device distribution programs.

Digital literacy and skill development are critical for wider adoption, demanding customized training programs and educational campaigns for various groups, especially vulnerable areas. Offering digital information and services in local languages is critical for bridging language barriers and promoting diversity.

Furthermore, economic and policy reforms are critical to creating an enabling climate for digital infrastructure growth. This includes initiatives like encouraging investment in telecom infrastructure through favorable lending programs, establishing consistent financial and tax policies, and providing subsidies like the Digital Bharat Nidhi to expand telecom networks, particularly for advanced technologies like 5G.

Streamlining regulatory processes and maintaining proper legal frameworks are also necessary to solve issues like vandalism and bureaucratic roadblocks in infrastructure construction. Improving infrastructure stability through grid modernization and renewable energy alternatives, as well as programs to distribute affordable digital devices, can all help to promote digital inclusion.

Addressing social and cultural hurdles, including gender discrepancies in digital access, necessitates focused awareness campaigns and community involvement initiatives. Ensuring cybersecurity through strong data protection legislation and promoting media literacy are also critical for empowering citizens and protecting against online threats.

To summarize, a coordinated effort on all fronts is required to ensure that all citizens, regardless of region or background, benefit equally from India’s digital transformation.

Could you share your insights on the potential impact of emerging technologies like 5G and IoT on India’s digital infrastructure.

The deployment of 5G networks across India is expected to significantly revolutionize the digital infrastructure landscape, providing unparalleled connection, speed, and low-latency communication. 5G’s capacity to deliver multi-gigabit internet speeds with ultra-low latency will create multiple opportunities and stimulate digital transformation in a variety of industries.
In the energy and utilities sector, 5G and IoT will make smart grid technologies more accessible, optimizing energy distribution, enabling real-time monitoring, and improving demand management. Connected smart meters will allow consumers and utilities to more effectively monitor and manage energy consumption, increasing energy efficiency and sustainability.

Agriculture, a critical sector in India’s economy, promises to benefit greatly from the convergence of IoT and 5G. Smart farming approaches, which use real-time data on soil health, meteorological conditions, and crop management, can increase production, optimize resource allocation, and improve food security.

The combination of 5G and IoT is poised to usher in a digital revolution in the manufacturing sector. Real-time communication and data analytics will power industrial automation, increasing operating efficiencies, lowering costs through predictive maintenance, and expediting smart logistical operations, strengthening India’s global competitiveness.

Smart cities, which are critical to India’s urban development goal, can use 5G and IoT to improve public services. Connected infrastructure, when combined with data-driven decision-making and real-time monitoring, can enhance intelligent transportation systems, energy management efficiency, and overall public safety.

Healthcare, which is currently undergoing substantial digital change, can be significantly improved by 5G and IoT-enabled telemedicine and remote patient monitoring. This innovation will improve access to medical services, enable real-time health data sharing, and assure prompt interventions, especially for patients in remote and rural locations.

The transportation industry is poised for a paradigm shift as 5G and IoT technologies enable Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) connectivity. These innovations have the potential to transform traffic management, improve road safety, and pave the path for self-driving vehicles. Logistics can also benefit from real-time tracking, route optimization, and predictive maintenance of transportation vehicles.

In the financial services sector, 5G and IoT can improve mobile banking experiences, enable safe financial transactions using blockchain technology, and facilitate seamless digital payments, thereby strengthening India’s digital economy.

Emerging technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are expected to thrive on 5G networks with high speeds and low latency, providing immersive experiences for gaming, virtual tours, interactive media, and remote collaboration.

However, unlocking the full potential of 5G and IoT requires significant investments in digital infrastructure, legal changes to accommodate these technologies, and strong data privacy and cybersecurity safeguards.

Addressing issues such as RoW regulations, property tax rationalization, the availability of input tax credits for telecom towers, and guaranteeing adequate electricity rates for telecom infrastructure is critical. Furthermore, extensive upskilling and reskilling programs must be implemented to prepare for possible job displacements caused by automation.

By building a strong digital infrastructure based on 5G and IoT, India can uncover transformative potential across sectors, boost economic growth, improve citizen services, and position itself as a worldwide leader in the digital revolution.

How can India attract additional investments and partnerships in the telecom and digital infrastructure industries to maintain its global competitiveness?

India’s strategy for attracting more investment and cooperation in the telecom and digital infrastructure sectors in order to increase its global competitiveness is diverse. Establishing a strong policy and regulatory environment that promotes innovation, private sector participation, and justice is critical. Tax breaks, accelerated depreciation, and R&D subsidies are critical for encouraging investment in innovative technologies such as 5G, Internet of Things (IoT), cybersecurity, and local telecom equipment manufacture.

Promoting public-private partnerships (PPPs) is crucial because it brings together public and private sector resources, resulting in successful digital infrastructure development. PPPs enable knowledge exchange, risk distribution, and access to private sector expertise, which is bolstered by favourable government policies and regulatory oversight.

Streamlining administrative processes, lowering bureaucratic hurdles, and boosting the ease of doing business are critical to increasing India’s appeal to investors. Initiatives such as single-window approvals, online application portals, and simplified approval procedures greatly improve the investor experience.

Investment in workforce upskilling and reskilling is critical to meeting the demand for competent people in emerging technologies, cybersecurity, and digital infrastructure management. Collaboration with academic institutions, industry-led training programs, and skill development efforts are critical for closing the talent gap and strengthening India’s competitiveness.

Strategic alliances with global technology businesses and research institutions foster international relationships, promoting creativity, knowledge sharing, and access to cutting-edge technology, thereby enhancing India’s unique solutions.

Showcasing India as a digital infrastructure development powerhouse, emphasizing its rapidly expanding digital economy, and sharing success stories through global forums, investment summits, and trade missions are all effective approaches to attract international investors and build collaborations.

India has made significant progress in the telecom industry, allowing 100% FDI and implementing ease of doing business reforms. However, continuous efforts, policy coherence, and a long-term vision are needed to ensure India’s global competitiveness in the digital infrastructure sector.

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