Improving Internet Access: An Explainer

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Tl;dr

In this explainer, we delve into the various executive and policy measures taken to expand India's digital infrastructure and improve internet access. We have focused mainly on the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018, since the policy is cornerstone of India's digital infrastructure framework.

An Introduction

Digital infrastructure, internet connectivity, and access to the internet - all of these metrics are seeing improvements in recent times. However, as we have pointed out recently, a persistent digital divide still remains, and so further governmental efforts are needed to boost internet access.

Last month, reports emerged that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has proposed to update the Indian Telegraph Act 1885 and the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act 1933 to bring the legislative framework in line with new technologies and emerging trends. As of now, not much is known about these amendments, except that they shall be drafted by the National Law University, after which it shall be put towards a consultation process with various stakeholders.

We believe that the Telegraph Act is as important to India telecommunications policy as, say the National Digital Communications Policy, as it forms a part of a goal and implementation framework through the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and the DoT. These goals are reached through specific offices and programs which also provide statistics and benchmarks for monitoring and evaluation. IFF believes not only that universal access to the internet is essential, but also that such access must be provided in a manner in which people are free to exercise their fundamental rights and not become a Faustian bargain. It is in this light that we have decided to look into the existing policy and regulatory initiatives to increase internet connectivity and improve India’s digital infrastructure.
This is a complex area that experiences a complicated interplay of policy components and programme components, and so such efforts are our attempt to understand this field. In the past, we have focused on issues such as mapping the digital divide, analysing Central schemes, scrutinising budgetary allocations and economic forecasts, fighting for 4G internet in underserved areas, and writing to the DoT and the TRAI. Our analysis is grounded in the context of 4 key datasets: 1) Annual reports and subscriber data from the TRAI, 2) annual reports of the DoT, 3) The National Family Health Survey, and 4) responses to questions in Parliament.

The State of Internet Access Today

As we have mentioned before, India is experiencing chronic inequalities with respect to internet connectivity. This is borne out by the latest Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators for July - September 2020:  the number of internet subscribers increased to 776.45 million, a 3.66% increase over the previous quarter. The number of urban and rural subscribers increased from 455.98 million and 293.09 million to 474.11 million and 302.36 million respectively. Overall internet tele-density (the number of internet subscribers per 100 persons) increased to 57.29 (3.4% increase over the last quarter), with rural and urban internet tele-densities at 33.99 and 101.74 respectively (3% and 3.4% increase over the last quarter). TRAI subscription data also shows that the total number of broadband subscribers increased from 747.41 million in December 2020 to 757.61 million in January 2021. As these numbers show, the picture is improving, but much more work needs to be done to ramp up internet connectivity and address inequalities.

What legislative and policy programmes have been undertaken?

Document Recommendations/provisions
National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 Key Central government policy for harnessing emerging technologies for expanding the availability and scope of telecom-based services.
National Broadband Mission Launched under the NDCP to facilitate universal and equitable access to broadband services across the country, especially in rural and remote areas.
BharatNet Public sector enterprise formed for the purpose of setting up a national Fiber Optic Network across all 2.5 lakh gram panchayats across the country.
Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) Set up to provide widespread and non-discriminatory access to quality ICT services at affordable prices to people in rural and remote areas.
Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules, 2016 Notified under the telegraph Act ,1885 to simplify the grant of permissions for the creation of telecom infrastructure.
Broadband Readiness Index Index created under the NDCP to assess States/UTs with respect to the creation of high quality digital infrastructure, attracting investments, simplifying procedures, and creating institutional mechanisms between the Centre, states, and local bodies.
Measures taken to reduce financial stress on TSPs The Centre has taken certain steps to boost the sector, such as increasing the time period for spectrum payments and introducing a moratorium for certain spectrum payments.
Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM-WANI) Launched under the NDCP, the scheme liberalises the spectrum regime and encourages the formation of Public Data Offices to boost internet service availability.

Since the National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 is the cornerstone of India’s digital infrastructure policy, we will focus on it here.

The National Digital Communications Policy, 2018

The National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) was approved on September 26th, 2018. The key objectives by 2022 are the following:

  • Provisioning of Broadband for All
  • Creating 4 Million additional jobs in the Digital Communications sector
  • Enhancing the contribution of the Digital Communications sector to 8% of India’s GDP from 6% in 2017
  • Propelling India to the Top 50 Nations in the ICT Development Index of ITU from 134 in 2017
  • Enhancing India’s contribution to Global Value Chains
  • Ensuring Digital Sovereignty

The NDCP replaces the National Telecom Policy, 2012, and upgrades the 2012 policy keeping in mind “changes and advancements in the digital communications ecosystem”. Recognising that “digital infrastructure and services are key enablers and critical determinants of a country’s growth and well-being”, the policy aims to ensure that all indians are able to take advantage of the digital revolution in a manner that: a) is equitable and affordable and b) secures them against potential threats.

Creating Robust Digital Communications infrastructure

The first vertical (or “mission”) that the NDCP proposes is creation of digital infrastructure. The proposed outcomes of this vertical include: a) providing Universal broadband connectivity at 50Mbps to every citizen, b) providing 1 Gbps connectivity to all Gram Panchayats of India by 2020 and 10 Gbps by 2022, c) enabling 100 Mbps broadband on demand to all key development institutions, and d) enabling deployment of public Wi-Fi Hotspots.

These outcomes would be achieved by the following steps:

  • Implementing broadband initiatives such as BharatNet and GramNet
  • Establishing a national fibre optical fibre grid to provide optical fibre networks in Tier I, II, and III cities as well as rural areas
  • Improving and expanding upon spectrum allocation and utilisation
  • Liberalising the spectrum sharing regime
  • Promoting next generation access technologies
  • Developing an ecosystem for satellite communications
  • Channelising and broadening the scope of the Universal Service Obligation Fund

Enabling Next Generation Technologies and Services:

The second prong of the NDCP focuses on incentivizing investments and innovation to grow the IT sector. The proposed outcomes of this vertical include: a) attracting investments of USD 100 Billion in the Digital Communications Sector, b) increasing India’s contribution to Global Value Chains, and c) creating innovation led Start-ups in the Digital Communications sector.

These outcomes would be achieved by the following steps:

  • Catalyse investments for the Digital Communications Sector
  • Reforming and rationalising regulatory regimes
  • Creating a roadmap for deploying emerging technologies
  • Enabling Hi-speed internet, Internet of Things and M2M by rollout of 5G technologies
  • Promoting research & development in Digital Communication Technologies
  • Creating a Fund for R&D in new technologies for start-ups and entrepreneurs to enable innovation
  • Supporting Start-ups with various fiscal and non-fiscal benefits
  • Building technical expertise and knowledge management for Public Sector Units

Ensuring Sovereignty, Safety and Security of Digital Communications

The last mission of the NDCP is geared towards securing digital sovereignty and effecting a safe and resilient digital communications ecosystem. The proposed outcomes of this vertical are: a) establishing a comprehensive data protection regime for digital communications, b) ensuring net neutrality, c) deploying robust digital communication network security frameworks, and d) building capacity for security testing and establishing appropriate security standards.

These outcomes would be achieved by the following steps:

  • Amending regulatory frameworks, to incorporate provisions with respect to privacy, data protection, and net neutrality
  • Ensuring that core data protection, security, and net neutrality principles are applied and enforced
  • Aligning with global standards on safety and security
  • Facilitating lawful interception of all Digital Communications for implementation of law and order and national security
  • Establishing a Security Incident Management and Response System for the Digital Communications Sector

Implementation Status

According to the government, significant progress has been made in implementing the NDCP. In response to a Lok Sabha question on 24th March, 2021, the government answered that:

  1. Several Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) projects and schemes such as BharatNet, Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan, and Provision of telecom towers in Left Wing Extremism affected areas are being implemented.
  2. Several initiatives taken by the Government and Telecom Service providers have boosted economic activity and created several job opportunities. The recently approved PM-WANI framework will further boost such economic activities and create a sizable number of jobs in the country and encourage entrepreneurs.
  3. Services such as eCommerce, FinTech, HealthTech, EdTech, AgriTech, UrbanTech, and eGovernance have seen a sizeable uptake in activity.  Consumption of these services has led to 5 times growth of the wireless data consumption in the country.
  4. Exports of telecom equipment have increased (Rs 11,023 crore in 17/18 to Rs 37,963 in 19/20) while imports have decreased (Rs 1,49,546 crore in 17/18 to Rs 1,06,195 crore in 19/20), strengthening India’s contribution to global value chains.
  5. Appropriate conditions have been incorporated in the telecom licenses for the protection of privacy and confidentiality, ‘National Security Directive on Telecommunication Sector’ has also been recently notified

What is public opinion with regards to the policy?

The policy has seen a mixed response. For example, the Internet and Mobile Association of India called several steps in the policy, “a step in the right direction” that would result in, “efficiency improvements, economic benefits, and reduced human exertions”. The Cellular Operator Association of India said that the policy would pave the way for the development of telecom and digital services in the country. The focus on mobilising revenues and investment towards digital infrastructure has also been praised.

However, some of the goals have been criticised for being unrealistic, while the lack of an analysis of the learnings from earlier policies.  A lack of specificity and clarity has also been pointed out, while the policy has also been accused of relying too heavily upon existing programmes. The reliance on a fixed-line broadband has also been questioned, given the overwhelming usage of mobile data in the country. On the economic front, commentators have said that the policy failed to adequately address existing issues such as crippling debts across the telecom sector and the huge imports of telecom equipment.

What have other state governments done?

Several state governments have taken significant steps towards improving internet access. The Tamil Nadu government in 2018 rolled out low cost public wi-fi zones in 5 cities across the state. The Kerala government has launched the K-Fon project. Acknowledging internet access as a basic human right, the project aims to provide free high speed internet to the poorest 20 lakh families in the state, and involves building out large scale fiber optic infrastructure across the state for commercial and non-commercial operations. Meanwhile, the Delhi government has approved the setting up 11,000 public free wi-fi hotspots across the city.

Issues with the NDCP

A comprehensive policy should ideally include an analysis of the policies it builds upon. Understanding earlier policies and how well they were implemented is a key part of policy making, as it allows policymakers to understand implementational challenges that may arise. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out by others, this is something the NDCP lacks. For example, the National Telecom Policy, 2012 too had set high objectives, especially with respect to rural connectivity, yet some of those objectives were not met. Indeed, the National Telecom Policy itself was criticised along similar grounds, and so the NDCP had provided an opportunity to right these wrongs.

The lack of analysis leads to another issue, which relates to the objectives of the policy. Many of the objectives are indeed quite commendable. However, some of them suffer from a lack of insight about the achievability of these goals, while some of them lack specificity about implementation. Consider the following: one of the goals of the NDCP is universal broadband connectivity of 50 Mbps to every citizen. This is of course a singularly remarkable goal, and is indeed desirable. However, this fails to account for the existing state of affairs. For example, an independent report has stated that as of August 2020, 685.6 million (~50%) Indians remain disconnected from the internet.

Another issue is the over-reliance on the private sector. While IT sector growth is imperative, infrastructure building may not always be amenable to private sector approaches. As we had pointed in our analysis of the PM-WANI scheme, a key part of addressing the digital divide not only means providing universal access, but also doing this at rates which would be affordable. Given the high initial costs in infrastructure development, along with the reliance on exports for telecommunication equipment, the private sector may not be able to fulfill the latter goal. Even the public-private partnership model would be helpful, as such projects would face similar issues to those faced by private sector endeavours. Moreover, the failure of such models in India, especially in the infrastructure sector, has been well documented. In a post-COVID economy still trying to get back on its feet, the private sector may simply not have the either the financial reserves or the appetite for risk that would be required to undertake large scale projects to build up digital infrastructure.

Recommendations

In light of the above, here are a few suggestions to address these issues:

  1. Comprehensive Digital Infrastructure Deployment Plan: An appropriate body, such as the National Broadband Mission, must constitute a high level technical committee must oversee a country wide survey, that must be conducted with the aim of assessing state of internet connectivity in each district and drawing up a concrete and comprehensive plan for initiating digital infrastructure projects in each district, including the mode of service delivery.
  2. Increased USOF deployment for digital infrastructure: The Universal Service Obligation Fund must be the primary medium of broadband deployment, especially in marginalised areas. USOF funds have often been used for governments for non-telecom purposes. Indeed, as of 2020, of the Rs. 1.04 lakh collected under the fund, only Rs 52 lakh has been allocated to telecom projects.
  3. Increased spending on digital infrastructure: Budget 2020-21 contained significant allocations towards digital infrastructure. While this is to be commended, such high allocations must be backed up by actual expenditure. To this end, government entities such as BharatNet and BSNL must be operationalised to provide cheap high-speed internet.
  4. Access should not be at the cost of civil liberties: IFF believes not only that universal access to the internet is essential, but also that such access must be provided in a manner in which people are free to exercise their fundamental rights and not become a faustian bargain. Hence, preservation of net neutrality, free speech and privacy need to be the first principles to expand internet access across bharat!

Important Documents

  1. National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 (link)
  2. 'Bridge the #DigitalDivide: On chronic inequalities in internet access' on January 7th, 2021 (link)
  3. 'We Write to DoT and TRAI to Improve Internet Access and Protect Net Neutrality During COVID-19 #SaveTheInternet' on April 24th, 2020 (link)