Was it Napoleon, who said that an army marches on its stomach? Or was it Frederick the Great? Historians do not seem to agree on that contentious question. Irrespective of who made that statement, you would think their armies moved on horses and carriages. What was actually meant was the infantry would come to a grinding halt without supplies of food. The proposition appears counter-intuitive initially, but then the message goes home. On a similar note, a nation needs ´food for thought´ to compete and move forward. Hence, we could safely declare that a nation marches on its net by which I mean the Internet, of course.
There was a time when the Internet was not there in our lives. I still remember the day in 1995 when we had a full day presentation made to us on the world wide web, in IIM Ahmedabad. Although I had been using a personal computer since 1986 (an honourable and dignified PC-XT, if I remember correctly, with a full posse of D Base, Lotus 123 and Wordstar), the venerable WWW was, till then, just a name backed by a vague concept of a network of US universities. It´s a far cry today, from that primitive beginning to what we see of the Internet as an omnipresent and omniscient force (happily, not omnipotent as yet) in our daily lives. The net has very quickly become such an essential part of our communications, news, learning, entertainment, shopping, governance, service-delivery, and what not, that we have no hesitation in accepting it as one of the most important parts of our infrastructure framework. In doing business today, micro, small, medium and large businesses alike cannot imagine a world without Internet. No wonder then, that Internet access is considered as important a part of business infrastructure, if not more, as the traditional items to tick off, such as roads, power, water, ports, railways, municipal utilities, etc. Information highways, as represented by the Internet, now occupy the top slot in the list of necessities, for not just the services sector, but also for manufacturing, and even agriculture! All these arguments make us take a long, hard look at the situation in India, with regard to Internet access, both from quantity and quality perspectives, which is what we have tried to do in this issue.
According to a World Bank report recently published, 82 per cent of the population in India, meaning 8 out of 10 people, did not have internet access as of 2014. For comparisons, the corresponding number for China was 51 per cent and that for UK, 8 per cent only. Let us now evaluate the quality of our net connectivity. Akamai´s State of the Internet report of 2015 compares the average speeds enjoyed by broadband users in various countries; India´s average speed in 2015 stands at a paltry 2.5 Mbps, with only 7 per cent of broadband users above the 4 Mbps threshold, which contrasts sharply with users in say, South Korea who get average broadband speeds of 20.5 Mbps, with 96 per cent of the citizens above 4 Mbps level.
If those comparisons sound damning, there is a lot of hope round the corner. The ambitious BharatNet Project launched by the government on PPP basis, estimated (revised) at Rs.74000 crore, may totally change the scene when completed by 2020. BharatNet is not only expected to be our new broadband backbone, but may also turn out to be a GDP multiplier. The acceleration of this project can be palpably felt in the statistics released recently by the government in its two-year report card. Fibre optic cables of 1,15,783 km were laid between July2014 to May 2016, vis a vis only 358 km laid between 2011 to 2014. Although there remain some thorny issues to be ironed out, like Right of Way and a cost escalation of over three times, we feel this project could be the game changer that our internet needs.