We need national digitech champions

The Draft National Digital Communication Policy has laid the road map for boosting India’s communication capabilities by harnessing a bevy of new technologies. It recognises the importance of pro-competition reforms and lays emphasis on effectively utilising new technologies and services for driving overall economic growth. 

The policy rightly concludes that emerging digital technologies — including 5G, IOT-based applications, Cloud computing, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, among others — will enable future-ready products and services, which can help transform the way we live and do business. The draft policy has also taken into consideration the industry’s many concerns to make it digital-centric and enable it to reap the benefits of mega technological convergence. 

The issues faced by the telecom sector can broadly be divided into two categories — service delivery and technology. Over the recent past, we have seen exponential growth of the service sector and are witnessing some serious disruptions with the advent of new technologies. Only the right policy framework for such technological convergence will facilitate adoption and proliferation of services and applications based on these advancements. The draft policy addresses some key aspects in this direction.  

The other key aspect is how the country is beefing up in-house technological prowess, to remain relevant in the global technological space. Amid the rapid advancement of technology, it is essential for the policy to enunciate a strategy under the Propel India mission to focus on design and development of new-generation products and solutions in emerging areas to meet India-specific needs. Self-reliance in this critical area is essential.   

Unless we build national competence in these areas with a well-laid-out execution plan, we will remain dependent on imports for rolling out next-generation services. India, where demographic profiles vary widely across various indices such as literacy, economic conditions and urbanisation, has peculiar challenges that need to be solved using these new technologies. Only products optimised for Made in India and Made for India can address this onerous task, the biggest being the need to enhance the livelihoods of more than 70 per cent of the population living in rural areas. 

Earlier telecom policies have over the years aimed at enhancing the domestic share in telecom products and equipment by 2020, but we are still far away from these aspirations. The government must have analysed the reasons why these targets were not accomplished while formulating the revised policy draft. However, the draft document does not spell out the intended road map and actions to build domestic competence and boost domestic design-led manufacturing. 

The draft policy also touches on the creation of four million additional jobs in the digital communications sector. However, a major chunk of this job creation is expected to come from the services industry. In the existing service model, the bulk of technology development work is outsourced by service providers and hence leads to creation of jobs with little opportunity for skilled engineering manpower. This trend can be reversed only when we have a strong domestic industry with major focus on high value-addition engineering in the country.

While the draft policy envisages design-led telecom manufacturing in the country, the government must support it with adequate funding for industry-led R&D and product development. This will enable us to create national champions in each domain to meet the needs of a secure national telecom network and be self-reliant. To derive long-term benefit, the industry must be supported through protectionist measures for some time to help it build capabilities to become globally competitive. China and other Asian countries have provided aggressive policy support to nurture their domestic industry. The government must also include a bold vision statement with clearly spelled out plans to support industry-led innovation in evolving technologies, which is missing from the draft document. 

Self-reliance in the telecom core sector is also vital from the security perspective. Security concerns relating to China’s wireless equipment suppliers are now spreading beyond the US to its key allies such as Canada, Australia, and South Korea. The US has already put restrictions on and taken action against Chinese companies owing to apprehensions that their equipment could be used for spying. Even the UK government’s National Cyber Security Centre has highlighted the security risks of using equipment from such vendors. 

Increasing dependence on imports of such products and growing security concerns because of them can severely impact the supply chain and hurt the telecom network, which remains the backbone of the digital economy. A compromised telecom network can cause unimaginable damage to a nation’s economy in these connected times. 

It is therefore important that the final policy must include a well-defined plan to build a robust, design-led domestic industry that is not only scalable, evolves in line with emerging technologies and caters to local demand, but is also competitive and relevant at the global level. This will ensure that India’s national champions emerge as credible alternatives to current global giants. At the national level, a vibrant communications industry will create an ecosystem that will generate hundreds of thousands of skilled jobs, boost entrepreneurship and raise standards of living.   
/> The writer is President & Chief Strategy Officer, Vihaan Networks Limited

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