Despite the fact that India is one of the favourite destinations for tech companies worldwide, some of the most advanced communication technologies have yet to arrive in India. We try to identify them and find what's keeping them at bay, and also what price India is paying for the lack of these technologies.
India only consumes and does not contribute! This is a very strong statement, but once I started working on this story, I talked to industry leaders, and even to one of the icons of the Linux world, Linus Torvalds himself. It dawned on me that India is really more of a consumer than a contributor to technology.
What are the factors that are keeping India from becoming a contributor? One of the major roadblocks is that some of the most advanced technologies have not reached Indian shores yet. The lack of these technologies affects development in many other areas, besides not allowing us to take full advantage of our skilled human resource.
"The main issue has been of technology adoption. India has been one of the late adopters of cutting-edge technologies... to the extent that when the technology is finally implemented here, it is close to becoming obsolete in other parts of the world “- especially when compared to the developed economies. Restrictive regulatory provisions and slow moving procedural issues drive technology innovations that have been well harnessed elsewhere to obsoleteness in the country," says Bundeep Singh Rangar, chairman of IndusView Advisors, an India-focused cross-border advisory and financial services firm.
Responding to Rangar's remark, one of my analyst friends commented that being late adopters has actually helped us, as we learn from the experiences of others. But he also added that once we get into the habit of waiting for others to implement first, it does more harm than good, as it discourages an innovative mindset. Unless and until you go out and try new technologies, you will not be able to improvise and innovate new solutions. In fact, the wait-and-watch outlook to technology developments could be one reason for the lack of innovation in India.
Broadband on a narrow track
Returning to Rangar's initial point that Indians don't have access to advanced technologies, let's see what these may be. Today, broadband has become the lifeline of technological growth for any country. In India, the lack of broadband penetration and paucity of bandwidth are major blocks to further growth. While the telecom sector boasts of deep penetration in the country, the availability and cost of bandwidth is a major issue when compared to the rest of the world. As a general perception, in India, 'high-speed' broadband means 256 Kbps; even 128 Kbps is sold as broadband, whereas in Japan and other countries it ranges from 2 - 24 Mbps to 100 Mbps.
There has been a long debate in India as to whether we need higher bandwidth, i.e., 2 Mbps or more. State-owned BSNL and MTNL, and other private players, including Airtel, Tata, and Reliance offer 2 Mbps broadband connectivity in India. However, due to inherent monopolies, the cost of broadband for an Indian user is at least two to five times higher than the international standard.
The repercussion of this 'unavailability' of bandwidth is felt in statements like, "Despite producing software engineers in the millions, we are not contributors to one of the major revolutions of the world 'open source'. It was strange to hear from Linus Torvalds that he could not name a single Indian who he thought had contributed to the development of Linux (read the text of the interview with Linux Torvalds in the September 2007 issue of LINUX For You). Though he was very diplomatic on the subject, the import of his words was clear.
How do our broadband problems affect the development of open source software in India? An open source Linux developer, for example, would need to download high volumes of data, open source operating systems, source code, and other software packages, and then would need to stay connected to community forums to aid building software and contributing to the community. When the average Internet connection is a mere 128 Kbps, downloading the full 12 GB Debian distribution of Linux takes you days! Contrast that with a user in the USA or Japan, who at speeds above 2 Mbps will complete the same download within hours. This is one of the reasons we are not innovating or contributing significantly to the Linux or open source community.
According to Vinnie Mehta, executive director, MAIT, "What really seems to be missing is focus on new content development, and focus on innovation. These two elements are clearly almost never talked about. Though in terms of infrastructure, from the corporate usage perspective, we don't really have an issue on the availability of bandwidth. But when you are looking at the consumer end 'at an individual' high bandwidth via broadband does not seem to be happening in India. From the broadband point of view, how can you make IT so all-pervasive that everybody is accessing IT all the time for their everyday needs - from billing and reservations, to information on sports, etc? What limits this accessibility is the [non-]availability of broadband in India."
Electricity is another major challenge. In metros, the situation is better compared to other cities and towns, where load-shedding shuts out tech development at an individual level. In Western countries, many developers are 'basement mice', innovating new products and technologies in their basements, without worries about broadband or electricity.
India awaits the dawn of 3G
Mobile broadband is likely to be the next application in the country's promising mobile landscape. However, its deployment is plagued by the non-allocation of the required spectrum. This is embarrassing, while smaller neighbours like Sri Lanka are already using 3G, there is no clear indication as to when India will witness the dawn of 3G services.
Adds Rangar, "The government has failed to meet its deadlines for creating the spectrum allocation policy. The spectrum in question is held by the defence and space departments. Given its limited bandwidth, the current 3G network may not necessarily be the ideal technology for mobile broadband. The business case for 3G may not lie in 3G itself, but in 3.5G, commonly known as high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA), as 3G ultimately provides a platform for enabling 3.5G."
Says Sally Banks, senior analyst, Ovum: "I would imagine that the major stumbling block is [lack of] demand for these services, and that operators will only deploy services like these in major cities, where there is sufficient demand for them."
In addition, Banks makes it clear that due to the geography and demographics of the country, the cost to operators of implementing new technologies is a major hurdle preventing advanced technologies coming to India. "A large proportion of the population will struggle to afford, or have no need for, more advanced technologies, and it may not be economically viable for the operator to implement these, as they may struggle to make a return on investment."
While India is considered to be a major 'producer' of software engineers for the world, it's ironic that India is the country that most needs their services and doesn't get them! Both the government and the private sector play their part in causing this crisis. While the government lacks conviction in its decisions, private companies plunge in only when they can see some business happening.
Rajesh Panicker, country manager, India, Kingston Technology, seems to agree somewhat: "I don't see any major hurdles; while state-of-the-art technologies exist in the private sector, which are accessible to only a few, it is only the lack of political will that prevents the common Indian from accessing these advanced technologies in various fields."
What else do we need?
WiMax is one of the most vital technologies for India, but even if it does have a reasonable penetration within cities, this is just the starting point of its growth. According to a study by Maravedis and Tonse Telecom, in India where monthly broadband ARPU (Average Revenue per User) is estimated at $8-10, and computer penetration is still at around 4 per cent, BWA (Broadband Wireless Access ) WiMAX adoption will depend on very low cost end-to-end pricing for connectivity, including the computer platform and CPE (customer-premises equipment). The Indian telecom sector operates in a volume-driven market. If WiMAX is to succeed, it will only be on the premise of huge volumes, not small deployments.
"However, shortage of spectrum is a serious obstacle for massive adoption of broadband wireless and WiMAX in India. For WiMAX to prosper in India, licence holders will need at least 20 MHz of spectrum, while they currently hold 12 MHz or less. 20 MHz is the minimum to support wide-scale deployments and hence a profitable business case," said Sridhar T. Pai, co-author of the report, and CEO of Tonse Telecom.
Trying to identify other important technologies, Pantulu Avasarala, director, Cincom Development, Cincom Systems, points out that navigation systems are another one of the most needed, yet most missed technologies in India. He blames the government for this lack. "There is not much of a concerted effort from the government sector to push applications based on this technology."
The Indian government has been very vocal on the topic of e-commerce, but Avasarala feels, "We do see availability of e-commerce within India; however, I believe that organisations can do better by educating customers on its usages and benefits. Lack of knowledge and integration within various applications, and security concerns for mass adoption, not only from the urban but rural sector too, could be the reasons behind the missing link."
We have primarily identified advanced wireless technologies as the strongest missing link. There are many others that we will talk about in the future. What we can conclude is that to fill in the gaps, much depends on the government's policies. While the enterprise sector picks the technologies it needs for its growth, the masses depend heavily on the government or on private companies, and private companies take the plunge only when there is a high rate of adoption, which translates into business.
Holistically speaking, unless users are educated about newer technologies, demand and adoption will not pick up. But who will play the teacher and tell our people about the technologies we need to make India a true innovator and world leader, instead of playing catch-up with the rest of the world? That's a million-dollar question.