It is my contention that there are vital considerations to be mindful of when a government embarks upon a big public-interest project with a lot of fanfare. This holds especially true for projects that are to do with technology, such as the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN), or Digital India, or BharatNet, or whatever the latest iteration is called. More so than ever when technology is presented as some kind of a silver bullet for resolving societal problems such as corruption, illiteracy, and inequality.
An innovative approach, first and foremost, goes beyond simply evangelizing technology and takes the leap of faith of putting it to good use.
A resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council in June—which India voted against—amongst other things "calls upon all States to promote digital literacy and to facilitate access to information on the Internet." Our nay-vote notwithstanding, and never-mind the non-binding nature of such a resolution, successive Indian governments since 2011 have embarked upon the mission to bring digital life to the farthest reaches of the country. The lackadaisical implementation of the project(s) since, coupled with the governments' obsolete vision of internet use as well as technology in the 21st century, now indefinitely defers the dream, and even hampers future innovation.
The primary method chosen to achieve the goal of connectivity is the NOFN, birthed in 2011 to bring connectivity to 250,000 gram pachayats, yet the laying down of the massive infrastructure of cables has consistently lagged far behind target. Common Services Centers (CSCs) are being established to provide essential services to rural citizens in a transparent manner and these are also meant to act as digital literacy providers. Yet, in many places where the cables have been laid, there is no connection, which means the CSCs have to rely on a private service provider such as Airtel. The report indicates that some Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLEs), who run the CSCs, treat them like money-making ventures that dole out false certificates of digital literacy in order to get government money, already rendering moot the expectation of transparency that was the promise of such connectivity.
Meanwhile, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad dreams of the common man being able to pick up good business on a smartphone, and the CEO of the holding company for CSCs anticipates tele-ayurveda and tele-homoeopathy since "it is better than going to quacks."
In a critique of TED talks, while speaking on that very platform, Benjamin Bratton had the following observation to make:
"... If a problem is in fact endemic to a system, then the exponential effects of Moore's law also serve to amplify what's broken. It is more computation along the wrong curve, and I doubt this is necessarily a triumph of reason."
He later added:
""Innovation" defined as moving the pieces around and adding more processing power is not some Big Idea that will disrupt a broken status quo: that precisely is the broken status quo."
Is a massive, country-wide network of optical fibre cables the sole option available? Or would it be of better use in combination with existing technologies such as mobile and satellite internet?
The current efforts to bring all Indians online reinforce all of the shortcomings that already exist in the Indian state—shoddy infrastructure exacerbated by right of way conflicts, red-tape, government apathy towards small entrepreneurs and corrupt middlemen. More optical fibre cables equals more internet for more people, and more literacy certificates equals more changed lives—that is the current thought process. Yet, none of it actually guarantees digital access, digital literacy, transparency and corruption-free services from the government. Nor does such a mindset address the issue of corruption at the numerous levels of hierarchy when it comes to implementation. All of the current problems with fixed line connections, too, will remain, which means that the future being promised to the underprivileged hundreds of millions will actually be no more evolved than the past two decades for the affluent.
That is not progress; that is the "broken status-quo."
An innovative approach, first and foremost, goes beyond simply evangelizing technology and takes the leap of faith of putting it to good use. Is a massive, country-wide network of optical fibre cables, from the farthest hamlets up in the Himalayas, to our islands, to the Northeast, the sole option available? Or would it be of better use in combination with other technologies such as mobile and satellite internet that already exist?
Chasing this telecom revolution, the government forgot the one we've already had. India has over a billion mobile users, close to 125 million of whom have smartphones—that is a number guaranteed to increase as phones becomes cheaper and the old models become obsolete. This means that within a handful of years, maybe even before all of those cables are actually laid out (since the deadlines keep getting pushed) most citizens would already have had a brush with mobile internet thanks to the wide availability of Airtel, Jio. et. al. Would they, then, prefer to access their personal health records through a middleman at a CSC or on their own device? Is it not more viable, then, to promote smartphone usage and mobile providers in areas where the penetration of such services is lacking still, and making those services cheaper?
The gigantic undertaking of laying optical fibre cables throughout the country may just prove to be an outdated, ineffectual solution which doesn't truly empower the rural individual...
Much is made of the achievements of the Indian space program. In 2009, two years before the NOFN was finalized, the government gave the go ahead for the development of the GSAT 11 communications satellite, scheduled for launch in 2017. The director of Space Applications Centre, an arm of ISRO, gushed about how this satellite would "not only link all the towns and villages in this country with quality high-speed wi-fi service, it will also integrate internet and television services," which suggests that the NOFN framework will soon be redundant. Add to this the fact that commercial players already do exist in the satellite internet provider market, and more entrepreneurs like the Bangalore-based Astrome lining up to beam internet from space promise to make the market more competitive and the service accessible. Beyond satellite internet, the likes of Microsoft and Google have been working on cutting-edge solutions that would provide digital services across the breadth of India, with Google's Project Loon modelled for cellphone internet usage.
The current process does not serve as a springboard for further technological innovation...
When the existing reach of mobile service providers, the availability of low-cost phones and the familiarity of the platform to the public, and the promise of both government and private ventures in satellite internet technology are all put together, it isn't hard to see that the gigantic undertaking of laying optical fibre cables throughout the country may just prove to be an outdated, ineffectual solution which neither truly empowers the rural individual nor takes away the chains that keep her down. In her lived experience, the bureaucrat is replaced by the VLE, with whom the government has constant financial transaction, which in turn does away with any pretense of transparency. On the other hand, access to the internet at an individual level via a simple and widely available device like smartphones actually offers the public with the avenues Prasad envisions, and this does not necessitate a country-wide web of fibre optic cables.
Last but the not the least, the current process does not serve as a springboard for further technological innovation, given that it relies on old technology as well as preexisting logistics through which government services are disbursed. The choice is between business as usual and the country entering a new era of creativity and entrepreneurship.