Digitalisation has been one of the most important trends in India over the past few years. It has emerged as the second-fastest digital adopter among seventeen major digital economies. This rapid growth helps propel India to the forefront of digital and technological innovation, particularly leveraging the energies of the country’s young population. Since the launch of the “Digital India” program in 2015 to date, there have been many significant improvements in digital infrastructure, in the digital delivery of public services and financial succor to citizens, and in enhancing digital consciousness and literacy.
Now, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it shows us how important our digital infrastructure is, which has brought the Internet and our entire digital infrastructure to the forefront. Overnight we became dependent on connected devices especially PCs as learning and working moved online with many more applications moving to cloud infrastructure than ever before. India has already made a big leap in digital adoption, as the collective number of internet users in India exceeds the number of internet users in some of the developed countries. Also, digital solutions have not only altered the way we live but also re-engineered our economies and societies. The internet is growing and providing more value propositions to customers and businesses and governments. Having said that the pace of digital infrastructure growth needs to be accelerated to provide connectivity to every single household.
The pace of change shifts into top gear
During the pandemic, our physical infrastructure was locked down in most places and while things will reopen gradually, this is no time to abandon the lessons learned in having a robust digital infrastructure that allowed us continuity. In the pre-Covid-19 era, the remote working and learn from home trend had been witnessing some traction. But the events of 2020 made it clear that a shift to large-scale remote working and learn from home models were feasible and equally productive in many cases with the right devices and tools.
I have always believed that digital infrastructure and connectivity are as important as roads and bridges. Government should make every effort and drive policy changes to make access to internet and PCs an essential need. This should be an all-round development which involves security, constant maintenance and upgrades. Potholes in the physical world can be felt, while digital potholes can and even trickier with considerable risk to business continuity. So building the digital infrastructure, securing the infrastructure and maintaining the digital infrastructure are equally important.
Hence, there is a need to equally participate with the private sector for an all-inclusive socio-economic growth and use digital infra investment as a force for growth. This will expand networks to unserved rural areas and will be a big achievement. According to a leading consulting and research company, the digital economy can contribute up to 20% or $1 trillion of India's $5 trillion economy vision. But in developed countries, they have been spending ~1.2% of their GDP on digital infrastructure. The Indian government too needs to acknowledge digital infrastructure as a fundamental transformational area and give it the same importance it gives to physical infrastructure, where 80% of its investment goes.
Our growing dependence on digital technologies means that we have the added responsibility to protect our data, information, health records, and more. While the world collaborates in saving human lives by developing vaccines for the biological virus, there is an immediate need to tackle the spread of the digital threats from scam, hacking, malwares and more; a factor that impacts businesses, economies, and people financially.
Roadmap for a better future
Stepping up investment in digital infrastructure appears to be imperative. It is estimated that India will need US$35 billion of upfront investment annually to be among the top five global digital economies, with such large spending on digital infrastructure that will also yield faster growth and long-term benefits for the economy. To make this happen, we will require an active financial and strong execution model. Investing in digital infrastructure could imitate the model of the road and bridge infrastructure projects in India which has significantly contributed to the GDP.
But there is a lot of work to be done to make the internet an essential service and accessible for over a billion people in India with the right devices and supporting an entirely new generation of entrepreneurs. The Industrial Revolution was a marathon runner, the digital revolution is turning out to be a race. The internet backbone is the new roads and bridge infrastructure for the digital economy and the future pace of growth depends on how well and how quick we build digital infrastructure. India’s 21st century depends on how the government along with private companies can join hands to expand this critical infrastructure.
Views are personal. The author is President and MD, Acer India.