Telecom sovereignty

Another revolution through

Mobile telephony in India is growing at a mind boggling pace. With close to 900 million wireless phones, the mobile revolution has become a cause of celebration in our post-liberalisation growth story, much like the IT revolution. This is a great achievement indeed for a country where one had to wait for several years to get a humble phone connection not very long ago. The wireless revolution, however, is far from over. Teledensity in rural areas is still just 40 per cent and broadband penetration is less than 2 per cent.

High speed broadband connectivity, at affordable rates, in urban areas is also not a reality. The next wave of telecom expansion is now in the offing. Along with plans to raise connectivity in rural areas to 100 per cent by 2020, ambitious plans have been initiated to provide high speed broadband services and latest offerings such as 4G and 5G. A National Fibre Optic Network connecting 250,000 villages by 2020 has been envisaged. Funds worth several thousand crores have been committed by the government.

Interestingly the telecom sector in India is at a position similar to where it was in 1981 in some ways. A crucial decision was made then to move from antiquated crossbar technology to digital switching. In 2014 too, the technology is at the cusp of another change – from voice to converged data, from low-bandwidth to superfast networks. Both then and now the decision relates to leapfrogging to the next best technology. In the 1980s, Indira Gandhi took a bold decision – to develop India’s own digital switching technology – despite resistance from multinational telecom companies as well as pro-import lobbies within her government.

In 1981, multinational firms were not willing to part with the digital switching technology because it was considered strategic. This forced India to set up the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT) to develop its own digital switch, which was tailor-made for Indian conditions. It was much robust than imported ones, could work without air conditioning and handle more calls during busy hours. C-DoT technology not only changed the face of telephony in India but it did so all over the developing world.

In exact replay of what happened in 1980s, international telecom companies are all eager to sell their equipment and software and are resisting the entry of Indian players in the arena. The question, therefore, is whether we will be able to take tough decisions yet again and usher in the second telecom revolution which can be called Indian. It is critical issue because the much celebrated mobile revolution was powered mostly by foreign technologies, imported networks and manpower at the top. As we prepare for our next leap into the world of digital communication, forces that created hurdles in development and diffusion of Indian technology in the 1980s are working overtime once again. In addition, we have trade barriers arising out of WTO negotiations on telecom. 

Asserting sovereigntyLet’s understand why India needs to assert its “telecom sovereignty.” In the 21st century networks are not about people talking to each other anymore. Today’s intelligent networks are actually a pipeline through which all our internal and external communication takes place including official, commercial and defence information in the form of voice, text and video. This makes communication infrastructure as strategic as defence infrastructure. The information pipeline is so intelligent that every single move can be tracked and traced.

All information tools - from gmail to apps on smart phones – are designed to gather information about users and feed into arsenals of data miners. Every piece of hardware and software bought from foreign companies could easily be used for this purpose. In such a situation, will it be prudent for India to ride the next wave of digital transformation solely on technologies available off-the-shelf?

Security concerns apart, it is a question of sheer economics. While addressing an industry meeting a few months back, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made an important statement – our digital imports will exceed oil imports very soon. India will be importing digital equipment and products worth $300 billion by 2020, which will be more than our oil import bill. Therefore, it is necessary for India to search for alternative options from both security and economic standpoints.

Thankfully, C-DoT which ushered in the first telecom revolution in the 1980s is in position to play a similar role now as well, though vested interests denied it to its place in the mobile phone revolution though it had developed all necessary knowhow. The organisation is ready with an entire range of communication equipment for next generation networks and broadband access. One such technology - the Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON) technology – has already been commercialised. It is specifically designed for Indian conditions. Other broadband offerings of C-DoT include Broadband Rural Wireless System, Shared GSM Radio Access Network and Secured Data Communication Network. All these are closely guarded technologies which no one is willing to share. All one can do is buy equipment.

After the Rajiv Gandhi era, C-DoT had unfortunately become a technology orphan and was constantly denied necessary support. But it did not lose heart and kept the fire of innovation burning. The intellectual property developed by this body is worth billions of dollars and needs to be capitalised. Like in the 1980s, new technologies can be transferred to Indian industry and they can be given preference in broadband networks government plans to unveil.

This will not only save foreign exchange and boost local manufacturing but also provide India a leadership position in emerging markets as it had happened with the digital telephone exchange in the 1980s. If we don’t assert our telecom sovereignty now, communication infrastructure of future will be at the mercy of others.

(The writer is a science journalist and author based in New Delhi)

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