In India, as recently as the 1990s, the availability of voice telephony was seen as a distant and unachievable utopia. Barely 20 years later, no longer is it a dream for Indians to make phone calls at will, but a virtual birthright. With over 900 million connections, and an interconnected set of networks that cover almost every village, just about all Indians have the possibility to access voice services, and most are regular users. Such is the pace of technological advancement, that the utopia that was only recently deemed unattainable is now achieved. A similar statement can be made about TV, where over 50 percent of Indian households now own one.
But the same cannot be said about people utilising the internet. As the graph on the next page shows, when it comes to internet use, India clubs itself more as a South Asian laggard than an emerging market IT bloomer. The actual number of users is still only 15 percent of the population. So, while widespread internet usage remains an Indian utopia today, could it be achieved by 2020?
In India, as in many countries, internet usage lags voice telephony penetration by years, if not decades. Today, telecommunication is so advanced that most Indians are already covered by a network that can provide a decent (albeit not ubiquitously high-speed) internet connection, so it is not just an access problem that is at the heart of India’s performance. Internet usage is a function of consumer demand, and access a function of supply: India needs both to attain internet utopia.
What is it going to take to fix this and have widespread usage by 2020? In a nutshell, three developments:
1. High-speed mobile networks
In India, where PC and laptop penetration are as low as 10 percent, internet access will be reliant on a single technology: Mobile. Even if India’s super-ambitious national fibre rollout plans materialise, the vast majority of individuals will access the internet through mobile since the fibre links that go to gram panchayats will connect via wireless to local users. So, whatever it takes, achieving India’s internet dream depends on the mobile industry more than anything else.
The network investment required is substantial, and to give confidence to the industry to invest, we need a stable and predictable market environment. In essence, this means India must move towards a more manageable number of telecom operators, a helpful local legal and administrative framework that enables network build to take place easily, intelligent partnering between the public broadband authorities and the private sector, and utilisation of universal service funds that exist to support communications development in remote areas. There also needs to be a significant improvement in the quality of the internet experience. This requires not only more operator investment, but also a more realistic allocation of spectrum in cities.
The potential is high: According to a recent study by Ericsson, India can expect around 500 million internet users by 2020, with around 400 million connected through 3G.
2. Awareness of the internet and its value
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(This story appears in the 09 January, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)