PPP is the key to public internet access

Connecting citizens to the world of internet has become increasingly essential for the development and social progress of a country. With the launch of the Digital India program, the Indian government aims to transform India into a digitally empowered economy and seeks to integrate technology with the everyday life of the citizens.

The government has identified ‘Public Internet Access’ as one of the nine pillars of this program. Under this pillar, the government plans to increase the number of villages with Common Service Centres (CSC) to 250,000 by March 2017, compared to the current number of 130,000. The government also aims to convert 150,000 million post offices into multi-service centres during the same period. The public internet access program intends to provide customized content through affordable internet access in local languages across the country.

Despite many initiatives, the growth of internet access has been restricted due to several factors. These include awareness, application and connectivity. It is important to understand the dynamics of a market to ensure smooth functioning and adoption. To create a robust internet access space, there needs to be an optimal balance between the demand and supply, which is enabled by market-friendly government regulations.

Supply-side: Public and private sector to walk hand-in-hand

To accomplish the vision of the government of India (GoI) and to provide urban amenities in rural areas, it is important to ensure that proper infrastructure  reaches the interiors. It necessary to have broadband connections so that the rural population can have internet access, as the country lags behind in terms of internet connectivity.

As for the private players, it may not be financially feasible to provide connectivity to scarcely populated rural areas, but it is important for the government to create an infrastructural backbone and warrant last mile connectivity by partnering with the private sector. The public and private sectors should adopt a hybrid model to work towards public internet access in India. Globally, there have been many examples when public and private sectors have come together to work towards the increase in internet access across the nation.

For example, Estonia has one of the highest degrees of connectivity in Europe, because of the focus placed on the development of a core network infrastructure through the public-private partnership. There was a concession agreement with a telecom company to provide connectivity in rural and scarcely-populated areas, in return for lucrative urban contracts. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, a wholesale access network was created though the hybrid model.

Once the infrastructure is in place, it will provide a level playing field for a variety of service providers to innovate and compete in the internet access space. The service providers can provide innovative products by using technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) to lower the cost of internet usage for the masses. In addition, the service providers can encourage local innovation to get ideas from the local market and incorporate them to better cater to the Indian market.

The GoI is working to extend the telecom infrastructure through initiatives like the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN), and the industry is working towards solutions that can be rolled out using the NOFN. With the co-opting model on the supply-side, it is important to have a framework to ensure awareness to build acceptance and enhance the demand of internet.

Demand-side: Digital literacy is the call of the hour

While India has the world’s second-fastest-growing mobile market, it lags behind in digital literacy. In India, more than 73 per cent of the population lives in rural areas and close to 40 per cent of the population is illiterate. Digital literacy is almost non-existent among more than 90 per cent of India’s population.[1]

In this digital era of disruptive trends, it is important for citizens to be connected and be able to use mobile/computer/tablets to access information, knowledge and skill through the use of digital devices. This is the reason for the growing desire among people in rural India to be part of India’s modernisation process.

The GoI and industry have collaborated to introduce National Digital Literacy mission (NDLM), which aims to empower at least one person per household with crucial digital literacy skills by 2020.The project will help adults with low technological literacy to develop the skills that are required to interact in an increasingly digital world.

Apart from digital literacy initiatives such as NDLM, the availability of digital content in regional languages will enable easy adoption of digital technologies. At least a billion Indians are more fluent and comfortable in vernacular languages; this will make it easier for citizens to access content in their mother tongue rather than in English.

Government regulations: a catalyst to public internet access

Once the citizens are exposed to the benefits of internet access, they will also be more vulnerable to security and privacy risks. By creating a digital economy, cyber security will become one of the key concerns since the impact of losing data is higher while moving towards a digitised economy. The cyber security laws in India need to be more deterrent.

Currently, India has underdeveloped regulations in the field of privacy protection, data protection and cyber law. There need to be clear guidelines related to liability in the case of a criminal act. The service providers should be held liable for the safety and reliability of the public internet access in the digital India ecosystem.

Thus, it is important for the GoI to update their regulations to safeguard a citizen’s data, government agency details and critical infrastructure.

What public internet access requires

While the government visions to provide internet access to all its citizens, it must emphasise on the importance of creating/co-creating in India to bring down the costs of customised products for the country. The government and industry should come together to collaborate and provide the required infrastructure and content to the Indian internet market. The industry should ensure that an innovative business model is set-up to provide effective solutions in a cost-efficient manner.

Apart from the internet providing initiatives, it is also important to focus on enhancing the awareness of internet through training camps and programs in various parts of the country. The regulations should also be strengthened to provide a more secure and robust internet access to the Indian citizens. Thus, it is important for all the stakeholders of India’s digital ecosystem to work together towards the vision of public internet access.

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