Thursday, April 14, 2011

Broadband is your birthright.

India's telecom policy is strange in many ways. Though the govt. has good intentions but the way policies are formed, implemented and executed are rather chaotic and anarchic. A lot has has been written and said about the recent telecom scams that rocked the Parliament, the nexus between ministers, bureaucrats, corporates and other lobbyists. The spectrum allocations and pricing, the corruption and bribery etc. etc. A vicious circle that engulfs the good intentions into one deadly evil virus. Well let me not get into that side of the story.

3G has been implemented. Most telecom operators have rolled out their 3G services and purely focusing on speed and the mundane features that accompany 3G. Mobile internet, high speed browsing, high Speed mobile gaming, mobile TV, video calling etc. But sadly no one is talking about the great social change that 3G services can bring in India. No one is talking about why high speed Broadband shouldn't become the birthright of every Indian. Indeed it comes at a price just like education, eletricity, clean water, clean air. But real problem lies in handing over information and knowledge to the common man, to the poor people. Broadband is the gateway to information to people's life. Now this is where the core problem lies. When people become more knowledgeable from the information available on the internet, politicians will have a problem manipulating people and securing their vote banks. It's a power game here in India. Broadband will enable more transparency. Broadband will enable e-governance and along with it reforms in the banking and financial sector. Macro issues at a policy level.

Look at some of the figures and you'll be surprised:
  • Today, total internet subscriber base is approx 70mn compared to 740mn mobile subscriber base.
  • India is expected to have 120mn internet subscribers base by the end of 2012.
  • Penetration of laptops and notebooks will rise from 4.91mn at present to 9.87mn by 2013.
  • 10% increase in India's internet penetration will lead to 1.4% increase in GDP.
So where can telecom and broadband service providers play a role for the betterment of society? How can broadband service providers really help elevate lives? Can they become the true change agents of Indian society and not just restrict themselves with few features as means to make profit?

Let me give you some examples:
  • In Dhanbad, the Old Age Pensioner's Payment and Monitoring System pilot project has brought about much required reforms in a system marred by graft, fraud, long delays and complete lack of transparency. No connectivity to beneficiaries is provided through kiosks, with biometric recognition and RFID cards. The pension is now credited directly into a post office or bank account and payments are dispersed within five days of the transfer of funds. In the past, getting pensions was a pain in the ass and not to mentioned the large sums of bribery involved.
  • In Chhattisgarh is a similar case where the public distribution system and the implementation of the NREGA is transforming lives in Jharkhand.
  • In Karnataka, Narayana Nethrayala rolled out the country's first tele-ophthalmology programme in infant blindness prevention in 2007, called Karnataka Internet Assisted Diagnosis of Retinopathy of Prematurity or KIDROP. Today KIDROP provides timely and affordable treatment by screening as many as 3400 infantts and successfully treating 328 kids.
  • Moving from healthcare to community development, Chanderiyaan or the Chanderi Weavers ICT Resource Centre is another case in point. Set up in 2009 in Chanderi, MP, the resource centre has demonstrated the extent to which internet and broadband can make a difference, affecting livelihoods directly. Eighty weavers retailing their products using Chanderiyaan have seen their incomes double. They have been trained in computer-aided textile design, apparel design and tailoring new patterns and designs have been developed, looms have been set up for poor weavers, an in-house showroom is functioning, an e-commerce website has been recently established and a digital design library has been set up too.
  • In Kerala, the tele-classroom initiative by Edyounet technologies aims at reaching out to college students in rural areas. Dealing with the problem of lack of interactive virtual classroom training in tier 2 and 3 cities, the programme is a network of digital classrooms equipped with LCD TV's, computer and internet connectivity. Students can visually and verbally interact with teachers and can even write or type on the LCD screen. using high speed 1 Mbps pipe, the programme facilitates delivvery of lectures from 'education studios' in prominent cities that have no dearth of high quality faculty.
  • Unilever India's Project Shakti now reaches to more than 80,000 villages in India covering 15 states and providing employment to more than 25,000 women who are earning an average salaary of Rs. 10,000 per month.
Examples like these are plenty in India. Small, significant changes are indeed taking place and happening at the grassroot level. Real meaningful work is being carried out by unknown individuals. Pity the telecom and broadband service providers are busy in their pursuit of profit margins and market shares. What bothers me more is their inability to see competitive advantages beyond tariff plans and boring advertising. They could have made a big difference to society and building themselves as a social brand rising driving changes at the bottom of the pyramid. Driving these kind of changes for the betterment of society is not about ticking the CSR box or fulfilling their obligations as an organization. These changes help create long term value creation. It creates a sustainable source of revenue for them too. Alas, broadband providers don't think that way. Hope it changes for the good very soon.

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