Breakthroughs Needed For Digital India

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The menu of services through Internet access is ambitious, and includes government services, health care, education, market information, financial services and so on. But it’s the lack of basic access, of the “pipes” and “plumbing” for connectivity, that’s the first, most difficult, yet essential step. Until this aspect is in place, getting results in areas such as efficient delivery of electricity, e-governance – including subsidies, education and skills, health care, manufacturing, and so on – is very much more difficult.

These services make up a robust wishlist, although their commercial underpinnings have yet to be designed and spelt out. As regards delivery, significant policy developments were reported last week. The Telecom Commission approved the operation of virtual network operators, allowing for operators who don’t own networks or spectrum. They also recommended lowering spectrum usage charges from five per cent to three per cent of Adjusted Gross Revenues, while the exception of one per cent for Broadband Wireless Access spectrum continues. The bad news was in the Budget for 2016: service tax of 14.5 per cent on spectrum acquisitions, including through auctions.

But these are simply not enough. It’s time the government accepts that Digital India is too distant, and they’d better formulate corrective measures. For example, even after 10 years with some success in setting up Common Services Centres (CSCs) in parts of the country, there doesn’t seem to be a replicable template with sufficient momentum for ubiquitous connectivity. Worse, urban services remain constrained by too little spectrum that costs too much, with many impediments to augmenting capacity.

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