India’s initiative focuses on mobile network penetration, with a plan to fill the gaps in connectivity in India by 2018 | (AFP)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has inaugurated “India Digital Week”, aimed at reinvigorating an $18bn campaign to strengthen India’s digital infrastructure.

The initiative introduces nine “pillars” that the government will expand on, in its push to bridge the country’s digital divide. Prasanto K Roy explains the significance of each pillar and what challenges the government faces in trying to implement them.

Digital India aims to have broadband networks that will span India’s cities, towns and 250,000 villages by end-2016, along with a system of networks and data centres called the National Information Infrastructure.

If successful, it could transform citizen access to multimedia information, content and services. It also gives the government access to a great deal of information.
However, laying cables doesn’t ensure they will be used.

After years of broadband and nationwide fibre-optic infrastructure targets, India remains stuck at a total of 15 million wire line broadband users. Yet mobile broadband use has exploded, currently standing at 85 million users, driven by apps like Facebook and WhatsApp, and the sharing of images and videos.

Experience shows that it is communications and content, not empty pipes, that drive network usage. And manufacturing content is not a government strength.

This project needs content and service partnerships with telecom companies and other firms, with new entrepreneurs.

This focuses on mobile network penetration, with a plan to fill the gaps in connectivity in India by 2018. Though mobile networks have reached most populated parts of India, the last mile is a long one: 42,300 villages still exist outside the reach of a mobile signal.

“Universal access” does not, however, guarantee a working network. Even in its major cities, India’s mobile network is so stressed that many say it’s broken, with call failures and drops a common complaint.

An intense shortage of spectrum has driven up costs and driven down service quality for India’s telecom industry.

But the problem is much bigger than dropped calls. As many as 85% of India’s 100 million broadband users are mobile.

As users ramp up multimedia use, and the next 100 million mobile broadband users come on board, networks will not be able to keep up. Digital India needs more spectrum. (BBC)