When the lockdown was announced on March 24, 2020, Asha, a domestic worker, didn't think it would go beyond the initial 21 days. After months of speculation, she finally packed her bags and left with her two daughters for Kolkata. Many of the houses she worked in had stopped calling their help, and moving back home meant she could save on rent, even as her daughters continued their education through online classes. Asha's smartphone doubled up for classes and as a source of entertainment for her girls. She may have been earning about Rs 15,000 a month but for her a smartphone is now a necessity.
Asha's story illustrates the evolution of India's telecom story and what it has meant for millions of Indians. From the days when having a landline was a sign of privilege and the wait to get a connection could run into months and even years to instant mobile connections and a mobile phone for a thousand rupees now, India has leap-frogged technology in connecting millions of Indians. The numbers are astounding-there are 1.17 billion mobile telephone connections in India. As of June 2019, there were also 665.2 million internet subscribers and 594.6 million for broadband. During the pandemic, India's communications sector emerged as a saviour for the economy as millions of Indians switched to studying, working and shopping from home. India's digital adoption surged during the outbreak with sectors like digital payments, edutech, and public schemes like direct benefit transfers all seeing a rise in usage. India's digital infrastructure emerged as a crucial pillar in this.
A PBX tele exchange operator in Bombay (Alamy Photo)
The India telecom story is also unique because growth has been led by the private sector. The New Telecom Policy announced in 1999 that invited private participation and sought to create a more level playing field is considered a watershed moment in India's telecom story. The policy lowered the fixed licence fee payable upfront with the government introducing a revenue-sharing regime. In August 2000, the government opened up domestic long-distance telephony services to private players-a move that ultimately brought down call rates. Import duties on mobile handsets were cut from 25 to 5 per cent, and that brought down the prices of mobile handsets.
The next focus will be availability of high-speed internet as a core utility for delivery of services to every citizen. It will be about a digital identity, a public 'cloud' that stores all information of an individual; greater use of technology in financial transactions enabling more people to go cashless; and participative governance with platforms where citizens can hold lawmakers accountable.
However, a few glitches need to be sorted out. Lack of digital literacy and slow speeds have deepened the digital divide in rural areas. Most telcos don't find it viable to connect far-flung areas, so there is delayed infrastructure development. A Deloitte-Assocham report estimates that India needs over 8 million hotspots (from the current 31,000 hotspots) to reach the global level of one wi-fi hotspot penetration for every 150 people, part of the challenges that the government hopes to address. Meanwhile, even as the telecom companies seek clarity on the auction of the 5G spectrum, the Union cabinet approved the proposal to auction 2,251.25 Megahertz of spectrum worth Rs 3.92 lakh crore on December 17, 2020.