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Digital Equity – The next 25 years of mobility services in India

Faisal Kawoosa / The Economic Times Share:
Skyline of Mumbai from across Back Bay. wikimedia/Cididity Hat

On 31st July 2020 India completed 25 years of mobile services.  Like many other accomplishments, one could argue, it’s nothing special and just a journey over a time horizon.

However, there is a fundamental shift in the socio-economic structure of the country as a consequence of mobile journey which we have seen over the past 25 years and still continue to.

From addressing the basic need to communicate, mobile services have come a long way. Today, mobile phones are the omni-companion of every other citizen. So much so, that many even don’t go to rest rooms without taking their phone along.

A lot has been achieved over this period. We have over a billion subscribers availing one of the most affordable services in the world.  It is gradually moving beyond connecting people to connecting people-machines as well as connecting machines-machines.  Effectively, any form of communication between two end-points is happening over a mobile service.  After making the device which is used to communicate ‘smart’, today mobility services are all geared to add this tag of being ‘smart’ with almost everything. Concepts like Smart City would not even have been proposed if mobility services as enablers had not been there.

Now, the way this digital infrastructure is getting deployed in the country is leading to a new level of digital divide.  The early definition of digital divide differentiated between people having access to digital services, with those who didn’t have the channels to connect.  Recognising this fact, many policy interventions and strategic roadmaps have been put in place over the past 25 years with the central theme of deploying infrastructure and expanding the footprints. As a result, we have mammoth expansion projects like BharatNet which continue to be on with staggering outlay. The premise of these programmes is policy interventions over the period of time which have ‘supply side’ fundamentals. This means if we enable people with the infrastructure things will fall in place and everything else will follow.

This approach has led to a new form of digital divide.  This new digital divide is about creation of two contrast views of the market.  On one side we have consumers having access to multiple options and enjoying the benefits of a free market. It is a complete monopoly where consumers don’t have a say. This is primarily the result of our overemphasis on enabling access and assuming things will evolve on their own after that. However, that is not the case.

Its impact is seen much on the public sector telecom operators MTNL and BSNL, who have been on this national duty of enabling access without actually getting into the contours of the markets they operate in. As a consequence, MTNL has not been able to meet up to the expectations set in cosmopolitan markets where customer is really the king.

On the other side, BSNL has not been able to earn the adequate RoI as its enablement of access to digital services did not necessarily mean business.  The only operator after BSNL / MTNL which attempted to go pan India in true sense is Jio and now it has also started to face that threshold where enabling access alone doesn’t work.  Its ‘2G Mukt Bharat’ ambition is not only ambitious but challenging as well.

Whether public sector or private, the operators have over these 25 years primarily focussed on equality where the premise has been that they need to bring as many as possible subscribers under the umbrella of the network and thereafter markets will develop on their own.  In reality, it does not work that way. This is what has to change to trigger a sustainable and rewarding Digital India, where there is equity and does not result in ‘Digital Elitism’.

Technology has a cost and it does result in creation of segments and layers based on affordability and needs of the customers.  But some of the technologies like access to digital communication cannot have the same approach.  The new definition of digital divide which we can see in the market is a consequence of the ‘supply’ approach adopted by the telecom sector for the past 25 years.  The sector is not to be blamed for this. Perhaps, it was the need of the hour where focus was more on enablement.

However, enablement alone cannot lead to empowerment.  Technology is no longer a building block, a tool, which needs to be merely provisioned and then left to consumers to build on that.  There is a need for a paradigm shift and think from more of a ‘demand’ side approach in the telecom services over the next 25 years.

The vision document for next 25 years of Indian telecommunications has to be based on ‘Digital Equity’, where the focus is not merely providing access but understanding the needs of consumers and offering solutions.

The telecommunications industry has to exactly understand the requirements of the consumers in India across urban, semi-urban, rural, hinterlands as well as through all possible segmentations based on socio-economic demographics and create a social change through equity model that shall lead to equality.

Unless this approach is adopted, the benefits of digital cannot be harnessed to the full potential.  The telecom layer will get deployed over the uneven structure of the society which will result in uneven development of the sector.

Telecom will not just drive the communications industry going forward. It is going to be the core over which social, economic and political activities will develop ushering not just to Digital Economy, but Digital Living. As we celebrate the glorious 25 years of mobility services in India, this is the time to rise up and extensively drive research, thought-leadership and dialogues to peep into the future and lay the foundation of a magnificent telecom sector in the country that will in essence drive everything.

 The writer is founder & chief analyst, of techARC, a Gurgaon-based research and consulting firm. First published in The Economic Times.

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