Time for "Right to Internet"!

While I am jotting down my thoughts for this week's editorial, someone thousands of kilometers away in another nation would be surfing the internet at a speed nothing less than 1 Gbit/second – the highest in the world – at a price that is affordable to 95 per cent of the population of their country.

The evolving knowledge economy is perhaps the second most important economic milestone in the world after the industrial revolution. The platform of this knowledge economy is primarily based on internet and internet based applications. This economy is the most appropriate indicator of globalization and how people belonging to different nationalities, cultures and linguistics can be brought into a common domain with mutually beneficial experiences. Millions of people in India have built their careers based on internet related services and applications. Online transactions too have increased at the speed of light. The spread of knowledge, education, healthcare, banking and agriculture through internet based services has impacted millions across the nation. However, because of lower education and internet penetration, the fruits of the internet revolution are more pronounced in urban zones than the rural ones. After the telecom revolution, the next big thing waiting for India is the broadband revolution. The prospects for this are more exciting than the telecom revolution, as this has a potential to dramatically transform the socio-economic landscape of rural India. However, market forces are an impediment for private internet service providers, especially the huge investment required to build a countrywide IP network infrastructure. With the growth trajectory of broadband penetration still in its nascent stage, private companies are skeptical about the returns on their investment, especially in the backdrop of the economic doldrums the country is experiencing. Our policy makers, however, should have the vision to understand the potential that the rural market offers from the perspective of business as well as development of people.

The penetration of broadband can bring in a paradigm shift to the entire economy by refocusing at least a chunk of the economy from the traditional brick and mortar model to a knowledge based structure. As per a World Bank study, every ten per cent increase in broadband penetration increases the GDP by around 1.3-1.4 per cent! Unfortunately, the broadband penetration of India is at 10 per cent of the total internet user base and 1 per cent of the total population. Contrast this with other countries, like Korea. Thanks to subsidized internet and proactive competition, in Korea, almost 95 per cent of people are connected through broadband, compared to 65 per cent in US, what to talk about India. Besides conventional (unconventional for the rest of the world) plans for ICT (Information and Communication Technology), the Korean government keeps a separate funding system titled ‘The Information Promotion Fund’, which aims at further increasing the internet penetration. Additionally, the government provides ratings to buildings based on the internet facilities in the building. These ratings range from one star to five stars and are displayed in the premises of the building under the initiative called ‘The Certification Program for Broadband Buildings’. Today, around 2 million apartments have the certification emblem displayed in their premises. Taking it further, the government made it compulsory for educational institutions (under the Educational Broadcasting System) to give assignments and results on the internet. All communication with students and parents are online. Today, most schools and universities in Korea broadcast their lectures, admission tests, and results on internet – thus indirectly forcing parents to opt for high-speed internet services. Such extensive plans have also reaped an extensive economic result, which is evident from the doubling of Korea’s per capita income in the last two decades, just after they launched their national broadband policy. Similarly, Singapore, which launched the National Computerisation Plan in the 1980s, and more recently the iN2015, is at the number two position when it comes to internet penetration. Through their latest iN2015 plan, the nation is developing an ultra-high speed, pervasive, intelligent and trusted infocom infrastructure, which would result in 80,000 additional jobs, 90 per cent home broadband usage and 100 per cent computer ownership. The same trend is being replicated in small nations in Africa and Latin America.

By increasing cyber knowledge and the skills associated with it, India actually can set an example to the developing world on how to progress amidst recessionary constraints. The integration of the rural economy with technology can bring forth an economic miracle at a level experienced in Japan and China. India’s economic dynamics makes it difficult to register a high magnitude growth at a depressing time like this. Moreover, to jumpstart the economy, the kind of federal investment required in building sufficient infrastructure is unaffordable to our government or can take an inordinately long time to accomplish. An alternative route is to bypass the impediments lying with the traditional form of the economy. The path to this solution must be unique to India's context, where some independent vision and a bird’s eye-view is required from policy framers. Undoubtedly, to build cyber infrastructure across the country would cost the exchequer a sizeable amount. But the cost is negligible compared to the investment required in building the tangible infrastructure of a traditional economy. Moreover, if we are successful in increasing broadband penetration, the improvement of skill sets for the beneficiaries will be a long term sustainable empowerment of the masses in terms of their economic, financial and social standing. By integrating the population with high speed broadband usage, their economic benefits can be enhanced not only in their immediate geographical location or even within the country, but also across nations and geographical landscapes. Today, across the globe, a broadband connection is more of a necessity than a luxury. Comprehending the same, Finland in 2010 passed a law making broadband a legal right for their citizens allowing every citizen to have a one-megabit broadband connection to start with, which would gradually be increased to 1 gigabit connections.

India’s rise as an IT giant is primarily through the industry's integration with the global economy. The rise of exports for IT, ITes and other knowledge oriented services are due to the leveraging of technology and integrating the marketing of that in global platforms. True, our government has to build this network infrastructure in a country as vast as ours, but the prospects of returns for the investment are so alluring that the government should give it a serious thought and consideration. In fact, this move, if implemented properly, will give India a chance to eclipse even China in terms of development and progress. If China has gone the traditional way of being a manufacturing hub, India can take a shorter and relatively inexpensive route to a holistically similar effect. In order to facilitate business, the Korean government came out with internet cafés called “PC-bang” with high speed broadband connections. Despite most of the citizens having their own net connection, people still come to these cafes and treat these venues as social get-together hubs, of course latently encouraging business and trade. Compare this to our cybercafes, which are infamous for snail paced internet connections and shooting of MMS clips!

It can be argued that over 30 per cent of our population is illiterate and can’t be integrated into this system. However, a compartmental policy of training the literate population in using internet and providing an alternative means of sustenance for the illiterate sections can solve the issue in the short run. In any case, the spread of internet is bound to produce a cascading effect on other industries, as well as on education, healthcare, financial organizations and agriculture. Therefore, the left-outs of the cyber movement will find it easier to reap benefits offered by the knowledge economy even if they are outside of it. And then, as a long term solution, the marginalized lot can be slowly and prudently integrated to benefit from the broadband penetration process with the prospect of being both beneficiaries of the opportunities as well as benefactors for others. If Right to Education seems fundamentally appropriate, then the Right to Internet has an equal claim and should be formally put in place now in India.

This is where I would request the Supreme Court's intervention again. Under such a circumstance, the Supreme Court should only be allowed to use the allocated fund in the best interests of the agency. We should immediately ask CBI to be more accountable to SC and its special committee formed for this very particular purpose. Automatically, Such a step would solve multiple issues of CBI - decentralisation, budget shortage and political intervention. Keeping CBI in the clutches of the political class will only ruin the entire agency!