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By Prof. V Sridhar, IIIT Bangalore

The anniversary of the signing of the first International Telegraph Convention and the creation of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on 17 May is celebrated as the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD) every year, and the theme for 2021 was “Accelerating Digital Transformation in Challenging Times”. In his message on the day, the ITU Secretary General Houlin Zhao indicated that agency would use the occasion to unite the world in pursuit of digital transformation in every field of business and all aspects of life. He also released an advocacy toolkit for enabling the same.

It is in this context that we need to salute the digital platform start-ups. These companies have made our daily lives much easier, especially during the pandemic. Today, these start-ups deliver food to our doorsteps, offer homebased teleconsulting to address our health concerns, provide Over-The-Top (OTT) entertainment to tide over these depressing periods, and deliver digital education to millions when physical schools and colleges are under lockdown. These companies have also enabled us to work from home (WFH), and more, to eventually protect our health and safety.

No wonder then, the year 2021 is most likely to be remembered as the year of start-ups. In fact, the Indian unicorns such as Zomato, Delhivery, Flipkart, Freshworks, InMobi, Nazara, Ola, Paytm and Policybazaar are expected to list their initial public offering (IPO) soon. It has been quite some time since VSS Mani, CEO of JustDial went for IPO in the Indian stock exchange and Deep Kalra’s MakeMyTrip listed at NASDAQ. Hopefully the financial institutions and retail investors will give the required boost to these IPOs resulting in these start-ups generating enough finance for furthering their investment to scale up their operations and provide the required societal support during the seemingly unstoppable pandemic.

While businesses have been embracing digital transformation to improve their efficiency of operations and provide personalized services, digital adoption of government services, especially in healthcare has seen a strong uptake. Criticisms apart, starting with Aarogya Setu, followed by the CoWIN platform, the government has been able to manage to contain the spread of the pandemic and provide health alerts in a timely manner. It has also helped improve vaccination scheduling and issue digital vaccination certificates. The unified payment interface (UPI) pioneered by the National Payment Corporation of India (NPCI) has witnessed unprecedented growth in adoption, with staggering 22 billion transactions in 2020-21, valued at around Rs 40 trillion. This is not far behind the transaction volume of 20 billion with a value of about $ 1 trillion processed by PayPal, which is one of the largest payment services in the US. The Aadhaar authentications have reached a record rate of 47 million on June 22, indicating the extent of adoption of Aadhaar authenticated services.

While all the above are taking place around us, there are also concerns about these digital initiatives not reaching everyone. In fact, those in rural areas are not able to reap benefit of this digital transformation due to poor internet connectivity. There have also been concerns about the reliability and robustness of these digital services, especially during times of crisis. As per ITU, reliable high-speed internet access that is a necessity for availing any of the digital services still evades more than 65% of rural households around the world. About 3.7 billion people around the world are without internet access. Even with a very weak definition of broadband (512 Kbps downlink speed), more than 300 million mobile subscribers in India do not have one.

 

Telecom continues to be the backbone of digital transformation. However, telecom companies have been hit hard due to the excessive regulatory burden and intense competition from the internet firms. Recent McKinsey report indicates that there is a shift of about 35% profit from global telecom firms to internet companies. India continues to fare poorly in terms of high regulatory levies, inadequate supply of radio spectrum that is essential for providing mobile broadband services, and poor supporting infrastructure such as right-of-way and fibre connectivity.

To reap the benefits of digital transformation, everyone has a role to play – teachers nurturing their students on digital skills, youngsters promoting digital awareness amongst senior citizens, businesses providing user-centric digital services, telecom operators deploying reliable high-speed internet access, and governments implementing a comprehensive digital policy to address the needs of the citizens.

(The article first appeared in the August 2021 issue of Voice & Data)