India’s digital economy is set for exponential growth if the targets set out in the draft National Digital Communications Policy, 2018, are met. The much-awaited draft policy, put out in the public domain by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) last week, unveils some ambitious goals: broadband for all, creation of an additional four million jobs in the digital communications sector, attracting $100 billion investment and universal broadband at an average speed of 50 megabits per second. The country’s digital economy has the potential to reach $1 trillion by 2025. While the goals are laudable, the success will largely depend on the ability to create a regulatory regime that is based on equitable rules to foster competition and steer clear of prejudices that had caused problems in the past. Since 1994, when the Centre first adopted a national telecom policy that threw open the doors to private investment, the government had changed the telecom policy twice — in 1999 and in 2012, with a separate broadband policy formulated in 2004. The telecom policy of 2018 promises to herald a similar revolution in data consumption that will help universalise adoption of digital technologies, including 5G, artificial intelligence, internet of things, cloud computing and big data. Since India offers a lucrative market in this sector, international investments are bound to flow, provided a transparent and enforceable regulatory mechanism is put in place. The telecom companies need to focus on investing in new technologies and infrastructure.
A big challenge before the Centre and State governments is to create optic fibre superhighways to ensure broadband connectivity to every household so that the full potential of the digital economy can be harnessed. If the goals of the new policy set for 2022 can be achieved, it would make a huge social impact and help in improving the living standards of the people in a seamlessly connected world. These goals include enhancing the contribution of the digital communications sector to 8% of GDP and propelling India to the top 50 nations in the ICT Development Index of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). With access being the main problem in India, it is heartening that the policy envisages creation of a robust digital communications infrastructure to provide universal broadband coverage at 50 Mbps to every citizen, provide 1 Gbps connectivity to all gram panchayats by 2020 and 10 Mbps by 2022 and enable 100 Mbps broadband on demand to all key development institutions. Given the past experiences, a pragmatic review of licence fees and spectrum usage charges must be undertaken to ensure that a fair, flexible and transparent allocation system is put in place. As India moves towards a digital economy, a robust data protection regime must be established.