India slides badly on the network readiness index
For a government that prides itself on its digital drive, to the extent that Digital India is a flagship project, the results of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest Network Readiness Index have to come as a real shock. Being ranked 91st out of 139 countries in 2016 is bad enough, but India has slipped badly from a much better 68th out of 144 countries in 2013. Part of the problem, as is obvious from the fact that a billion Indians still don’t have access to the internet, is that India has done quite badly even relative to its own needs; a related problem is that other countries have progressed much faster than India has. Also, while the government thinks an exclusive focus on getting more internet connections—through auctioning more broadband spectrum and through projects like the national optical fibre network—the Network Readiness Index also takes into account the quality of the education system since an educated population will make better use of connectivity. And even in the case of the national optical fibre project, the delays have been huge, mostly because of the government’s insistence on using PSUs to complete it; in the mobile space, it is near-criminal that PSUs like MTNL and BSNL have been allowed to squat on spectrum while telcos with a lot more customers have remained starved of spectrum.
Fixing larger issues like electricity availability and enrolment in higher education or various ease of doing business indicators will take time—while the number of households with computers is very poor, with internet-ready mobile phones getting cheaper, this will not pose as much of a problem in the future. India’s poor showing on other basic ICT-related indices shows where the problem lies. At the 8th position in 2016—it was 1st in 2013—India has perhaps one of the most affordable internet access in the world. But, with a rank of 116 out of 139, India’s bandwidth per user is amongst the lowest in the world. What this means is that, to ensure higher usage, telcos are keeping tariffs to the minimum, but along with high cost of spectrum, they simply do not have enough money to spend on the kind of capex that is needed. And while the World Economic Forum’s network index does not capture this, the government also takes too much away from telcos by way of annual spectrum usage charges and license fees—the ill-advised move to push for ‘net neutrality’, as this newspaper has consistently argued, will further lower telco profits and make it more difficult for them to roll out larger internet networks. An associated reason for the poor internet speeds is also bureaucracy—so while telcos are buying more spectrum and connecting more users to the internet, they do not have enough optic fibre between their towers to move the traffic faster to their switches; even now, getting permissions to dig roads to lay optic fibre is a nightmare. Hopefully, the dramatic fall in India’s ranking will prompt the government to rethink its strategy.