With a rapid rise in the number of internet users in the country and an exponential increase in the online activity, what is still lacking even after 25 years is good quality internet with consistent speeds. It is about who provides more data at a lower cost rather than who provides the same offering at much better and consistent quality, feel Biren Parekh, Biren Parikh, Chintan Oza, Dhaval Mankad & Jamsheed Sukhadwala
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, personal computing was at a very nascent stage, with presence in few scattered pockets across India. During the time of MS-DOS, Windows 3.1 and subsequently Windows-95, modems, teleprinters and fax devices started appearing on the networking landscape. Before the launch of the internet in the country, bulletin board services (BBS), which entailed a person creating a server with content hosted on it, gained acceptance. Users would connect with the BBS through a dialup connection to access the content stored on the server. Dial-up connections required 14.4 kbps to 32 kbps modems. A 128 kbps connection was considered high speed at that time and only used for commercial purposes.
However, as the content was more text-oriented compared to heavy reliance on graphics, media and video content the speed of connectivity seemed to suffice the needs of the day for communications.
It was on August 15, 1995, that the internet was introduced in India by Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL) (now Tata Communications) in the top metro cities with links through satellite and subsequently through submarine cable systems plugging in India into the globally connected ecosystem. The price of a 128kbps leased line connection was Rs 1 million per annum, with dial-up connections costing between Rs 5,000-15000. Back in those days, the internet was mostly used by corporations for running applications such as email, web hosting and running basic chat applications.
Internet's reach was initially limited to wired connectivity through dialup and leased lines, which slowly graduated to mobile service providers offering mobile WAP services on 2G GPRS and EDGE networks.
The launch of smartphones and other smart computing devices was a sort of renaissance as it caused internet consumption to move from limited and restricted usage on computers to hand-held devices. With this, the accessibility of the internet has increased exponentially.
Fast forward to 2020, more than 50 per cent mobile penetration has made the internet an essential commodity across geographies and social strata with higher adoption of smartphones as well as feature phones supporting internet-based applications. Additionally, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing people to remain indoors, internet connectivity has become the lifeline for students, teachers, work-from-home employees, entrepreneurs with unified collaboration services, e-commerce, social media, medical consulting, digital payment solutions and public cloud services getting mainstreamed.
Factors Driving Growth
Growing at the rate of more than 11 users per second, or 1 million new users each day, global internet users now make up 62 per cent (4,833.521 million) of the global population (June 2020). It is estimated that more than three-fourth of the global population will have internet access by 2023. There will be 5.9 billion total internet users (74 per cent of the global population) by 2023, up from 4.8 billion (62 per cent of the global population) in 2020 considering 6 per cent CAGR.
The number of internet users in India was 636.74 million in 2019, which rose to 700 million by mid-2020. India has the second-highest number of internet users in the world after China. The number of internet users is around 50 per cent of the country's population.
Internet users are spending their time on various applications like instant messaging (90 per cent), social media (74 per cent), online videos (70 per cent) and shopping (69 per cent). As of mid-2020, Indians spent an average of 6 hours and 30 minutes daily on the internet.
Among the drivers for increasing the use of faster internet in India is growing in the rural market. Rural India has 264 million internet users and this is expected to reach 304 million in 2020. Local language content and video drive the internet boom in rural India, with 2.5 times increase in penetration in the last four years. Mobile apps are being used for online crop analysis and for seeking ways to enhancing crop yield.
The use of the internet helps farmers manage their farms and market their products in a more efficient and timely manner. Being an agricultural country, this is going to be one of the prime growth drivers.
Increased Spending Power
Increased spending power is yet another driver. Due to increasing disposable income, the average Indian household is spending more on high-end mobiles and gadgets, thereby fuelling the growth of the internet bandwidth and the demand for faster internet. Adoption of smart and voice-enabled speakers and health wearables are examples of the same.
The demand for high-end internet bandwidth is fuelling the use of connected devices like IoT, virtual assistants, autonomous and connected cars, consumer appliances and drones.
Most Indians are adapting to e-learning, e-commerce, online shopping, online medical consultation, video chatting, viewing content on OTT, etc., fuelling the use of internet bandwidth further.
There has been an exponential growth of digital transactions across all sections of the society due to demonetisation, further accelerated by the pandemic and the ease of convenience innovative technologies, such as UPI, Google Pay, PayTM, etc.
Other key drivers for internet growth are social media platforms predominantly Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram & others.
Localisation, too, is playing its role. Due to the variety of languages spoken across India, there is a high demand for different localised content. For instance, the growth of search in Hindi has grown a whopping 155 percent in recent years. Growth in traffic in other languages, too, was impressive. This all started in 2014 and has been growing at a consistent pace.
In the next decade or so, Internet usage is set to grow further with the Rise of Digital India. Adoption of Aadhaar, eKYC, eSign, UPI, Digital Locker, India Health ID and others will build a uniform layer of technology-enabled citizen services. This next level of e-governance would be achieved by four layers, namely, the presenceless layer, paperless layer, cashless layer and consent layer.
Next on the anvil is BharatNet, an ambitious project aimed at providing fibre-optic connectivity to all gram panchayats. The project is divided into three phases. The first phase is about to be completed and 150,000-gram panchayats have been connected. The second phase would cover 100,000-gram panchayats and phase three would upgrade the infrastructure already deployed.
Building Greenfield Urban Infrastructure
Around 40 per cent of the Indian population will reside in cities by 2030 and will contribute as high as 75 per cent of the GDP. Twelve new smart cities are scheduled to come up in this decade.
Content-driven growth, leapfrogging digital advertising (1.2 billion to 2.6 billion by 2023), exponential usage of online streaming music (13.8 CAGR to 0.7 billion), podcasts, and video on the demand, increase in the number of social media network users by 42 per cent, increased surveillance, IoT-driven growth, smart wearables, the lowered entry barrier for the bottom mass of the pyramid and pan-India rollout of 5G are other factors that would push for greater use of the internet.
Of late, industrial operations like the smart factory, logistics, healthcare, etc. have been gaining a lot of traction. With this move, the manufacturing plant network is getting extended to cloud, information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) in an integrated manner.
The companies now need to invest in technologies like cloud computing, business intelligence (BI), IoT, advanced sensor technologies, 3D printing, industrial robotics, data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), enhanced machine-to-machine (M2M) communication along with building the capability of the workforce.
Various advanced techniques are helping farmers to do GIS mapping and pesticide spraying by drones. The use of AI and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) in soil analysis and near-real-time pre-harvest weather forecasts are helping boost yield and spurring governments to align resources and insurance agencies to customize the crop insurance premiums.
IoT sensors, smart supply chains, e-commerce platforms, data analytics and blockchain aids are ensuring tracking of the food supply chain from farm to form during the post-harvest phase.
Robotics in Healthcare
This is another dark horse and much talked about technology although in use for quite some time. Remote consulting supervised surgeries along with robotics will further boost internet growth in the health sector. World-renowned cardiologist Tejas Patel has already carried out five remote coronary procedures with an Internet-connected robotic system.
The over the top (OTT) platform is riding high on consumers and will be driving the internet expansion exponentially. According to a report published by research firm KPMG, there are interesting statistics that reflect the trend. When it comes to OTT and online video viewing, age is no bar and city or income group is not a differentiator. Income group of less than Rs 300,000 to above Rs 1 million, or age group of 15-25 to 50+, all spend an average of 8-10 hours per week on online viewing. This is only going to go up.
What Needs to Be Fixed?
Along with the anticipated growth in numbers, a lot more needs to be done to take the internet to the next level. In the backdrop of 5G and 6G looming, do you feel the current internet is good enough? Few inherent issues need to be fixed on priority.
What is required is good quality internet with consistent speeds rather than bad quality unlimited internet. It is about who provides more data at a lower cost rather than who provides the same offering at a much better and consistent quality.
Even while travelling on expressways or national highways, 3G or 4G connectivity is an issue and even call drops are frequent. Even in well-connected metros and Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities consistent connectivity in lifts, part of buildings, basements and so on is lacking.
Service providers in India must, therefore, focus on providing consistent, quality internet access irrespective of the area. At a time when India's model of development used to be strongly socialistic, the focus was on Roti, Kapda Aur Makaan (Food, Clothing and Shelter). The phrase can now easily be reworded to Roti, Kapda, Makaan Aur Internet (Food, Clothing, Shelter and Internet). In this highly interconnected world, everything human as well as non-human objects all are somewhere part of the internet ecosystem.
Biren Parekh is Vice President, Intellect Design Arena Ltd; Biren Parikh is CIO, CERA Sanitaryware Ltd; Chintan Oza is Advisor, Lloyds Ventures; Dhaval Mankad is Vice President Information Technology, Havmor Ice Cream Pvt Ltd; and Jamsheed Sukhadwala is Associate VP Product Management, Tata Communications