India is far behind schedule in its plans to give its 1.2 billion citizens access to high-speed broadband Internet. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to do a lot more to prove his critics wrong, says Shivam Vij.
Over the weekend, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Silicon Valley, where he had the usual stadium welcome from Indian expats and met with the CEOs of top technology firms.
Chipmaker Qualcomm pledged $150 million (133.2 million euros) to invest in Indian startups, Google promised to give free Wi-Fi in Indian railway stations and Facebook held a town hall meeting where Indians were flown in to ask questions to their prime minister. Modi spoke about the poverty he experienced growing up, and broke down.
To support Modi's "Digital India" initiative, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg changed his display picture to show colors of the Indian flag over his face, urging others to do so as well. Critics saw it as Facebook's way of cozying up to the Indian government, which has been threatening regulatory action against its Internet.org project for violating net neutrality. The project promotes Internet use in developing countries by offering a package of free mobile phone apps.
None of this, however, is going to make it easier for Modi to achieve his goal of providing high-speed broadband Internet to 1.2 billion Indians. As of now, only 1.2 of every 100 Indians have broadband access, as compared to the global average of 9.4.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, himself of Indian origin, said they would partner in the plan but details are still unknown. It's unlikely that Microsoft will be able to speed up the process, which is mired in the usual troubles faced by all infrastructure projects in India. Until now, private telecom companies have been reluctant to associate themselves with the project.
Started by the previous government in 2011, the National Optical Fiber Network plan was to lay fiber optic cables at the doorstep of 250,000 village clusters across India. This network would then be used by telecom companies to bring broadband to people's homes. As of now, only 10 percent of those 250,000 village clusters have their fiber optic cable, and none have Internet.
The project was to have been completed by December 2013, but seeing its abysmal progress the government extended the deadline to September 2015. Such delays, causing huge cost overruns, are routine in Indian infrastructure projects. And such are the ways of government that many hoped Modi would change.
Modi was elected prime minister in May 2014, and a few months later his government announced its "Digital India" plan, which, among other things, gave the fiber optic project a new deadline of March 2016. This has since been extended to December 2016, and now there's talk of pushing it even further into the future, to 2018.
According to current targets, the government was to have completed the work in 50,000 village clusters by this past March, but managed to complete less than half of that by July.
The problems are nothing new: inefficient state-run companies, state governments and the central government playing the blame game, slow-moving municipal bodies asking for huge sums to grant "right of way," the slow release of funds and the unavailability of hardware.
A study by the Digital Empowerment Foundation, a New Delhi-based non-profit, took a closer look at some of the supposed completed work in January. In a village in Rajasthan, a fiber optic cable hung lifeless from a box, even though by government claims it should already have been a working line providing Internet access. Half the lines claimed on paper were either not installed, or not working. The government has promised 100 megabits per second, but the working lines deliver half that - and that's not even near the speeds that homes will eventually get.
Such discrepancies in claims and reality are again typical of Indian government projects, except that this is what Narendra Modi has promised to change.
The unavailability of affordable broadband has put great pressure on India's mobile Internet services, which are predictably poor. A 4G network is close to launching, but it's estimated that only 700 of 439,000 mobile network towers support 3G or 4G data use. The Indian government has not been releasing enough commercial telecom spectrum, and the Modi government is not changing that policy.
In UNESCO's "The State of Broadband 2015" report, India's ranking slipped by six points over the previous year, to 131 of 189 countries. One day, all of India will have high-speed broadband Internet access. The question is, how far away is that day? Critics have said the "Digital India" dream won't be completed by 2019, when Modi will seek re-election as prime minister. Proving the critics wrong will require a lot more than hanging out with tech CEOs in Silicon Valley.