Google Chairman Eric Schmidt visited India last week and from all the interviews and news articles, I understood he had two key concerns about India. One, India was lagging behind in harnessing the power of the Internet because of its failure to invest in high-speed telecom networks. Two, India needs to change laws that hold Internet companies criminally responsible for material posted by users.
"The Internet here feels like [what it was] in America in 1994," Schmidt said during an interview. But compare America of 1994 with America of 2013, then compare India of 1994 with India of 2013, and you will know why the Internet here feels like the Internet in America in 1994.
In 1994, India was quite a different country. It was a third-world nation and a land of snake-charmers. People in Indian metros had not experienced the Internet. They had only heard about it from their friends and relatives living in America and other developed nations.
We began experiencing the Internet only in late-1995 and 1996, and mostly from our offices. Internet was introduced in India (across cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, and Pune) on August 15, 1995. During those days, the Internet was more or less synonymous with Hotmail. Indian homes began acquiring dial-up connections in 1996.
In mid-1990s, telecommunications was all about landline phones and pagers. In 1996, we saw mobile phones--the first mobile telephone service started on non-commercial basis on August 25, 1995, in Delhi. And within five years, the outsourcing phenomenon took birth.
We have come a long way since the mid-1990s, Mr. Schmidt. Today, MNCs (multinational corporations) including Google look at India for growth. The country has 862 million mobile phone subscribers. Despite all the reported scams and lacunae in policy-making, India is still a very attractive telecom market. The market for smartphones is growing at over 50 percent in India. The country is also a booming market for tablets, laptops and smart TVs.
During the last two decades, India has seen rapid urbanization. The number of cities and towns has increased from 5,161 in 2001 to 7,935 in 2011. India in 2011 had 53 metropolitan cities that had a population above 1 million, as opposed to 35 in 2001.
While so much has changed, a lot remains to be done. The education sector has not kept pace with economic growth and urbanization. India has the largest illiterate population, with 26 percent of its population unable to read or write. Even sectors like power, roads, and ports have failed to keep pace with economic growth, urbanization, and population growth.
In fact, more than broadband, perhaps the country needs more toilets.
A report released last week on the housing stock, amenities, and assets in slums--based on Census 2011--noted that one-third of identified slum households in India did not have toilets, but a sizeable percentage of the dwellings had electricity, mobile phone connections, and televisions. About 70 percent slum households had television and 72.7 percent slum households had telephones.
The government is setting up the National Optical Fiber Network (NOFN) to provide connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats, or village self-governing bodies, in the country using optical fiber which would ensure broadband connectivity with adequate bandwidth.
However, taking broadband to the villages of the country alone won't solve all problems. Unless people are educated and have electricity in their homes, there is little they can do with the broadband connection at their gram panchayat.
Now let's examine Schmidt's second concern. A law passed by the Indian Parliament in 2011 holds Internet companies liable for "offensive" material posted by users. Critics of the legislation say it does not define what kind of material could be deemed offensive, thereby, opening the door for frivolous lawsuits against companies like Google.
Addressing this concern, telecom minister Kabil Sibal mentioned India was wedded to the freedom of expression at an event organized by Google. His statement definitely was not convincing, especially seen in light of the recent news reports. Every day there is news about government agencies keeping a closer watch on the Internet.
The fact is, there are many Indias inside India, and anything that is said on the Internet can have far-reaching repercussions. The Internet can be used to arouse communal sentiments, leading to riots. It can also be used to spread rumors, and spread terrorism.
In short, due to widespread illiteracy, poverty, and religious and cultural diversity, there is a far greater scope to misuse the Internet in India than perhaps in most other countries.
Moreover, freedom must come with some responsibility. During the Mumbai terror attacks of November 26, 2008, India saw how freedom without responsibility can hurt national interest when the television media reported events live from the affected locations in south Mumbai. This reckless coverage helped the masterminds of these attacks who were watching the live telecast, and were in touch with terrorists holed up inside Taj Hotel, Oberoi Hotel, and Nariman House.
Having said that, I agree India needs to make its regulations less ambiguous. The responsibilities and liabilities of intermediaries like Google need to be well-defined.
Over the last two decades, growth in India has been consumption-led and largely unplanned. Back in the mid-1990s, when mobile operators were busy rolling out their telecom networks, they would not have known that within the next decade, nearly half the Indian population would have a mobile phone.
Similarly, it's tough to plan or predict the growth of broadband. If there is a business case for broadband, it is bound to see similar growth as mobile telephony. However, unlike mobile telephony, I doubt if growth in broadband can happen in isolation.
So far, India has seen economic growth, but little development. And economic development can't happen without growth in infrastructure, basic amenities, and services like education and healthcare. Broadband is just one component of this infrastructure.