Aruna Sundararajan's first tryst with technology was two decades ago, when she played a pivotal role in forming an IT department in Kerala in 1998. As Kerala’s founding IT secretary, she executed the Akshaya project, in which some 10 lakh people were trained in basic computer skills. Now, as India's telecom secretary, she is all set to bring in sweeping changes in the telecom sector. Excerpts from an interview:
The Telecom Commission recently suggested relaxing the spectrum cap, which might lead to a consolidation in the beleaguered telecom sector. What exactly are the problems in the sector?
Once in every 10 years, the telecom sector all over the world undergoes a major churn. It happens when a major technology comes up. When it happens, the nature of the industry also undergoes a change. What has been happening in the recent times is a phase of consolidation. You need huge scale, and you need to make heavy investment to update and upgrade your technology. India, which used to have eight to ten players—at one time it had as many as 16 players—is becoming a mature market. Mature markets all over the world have two or three operators. In India, we expect that we will have four operators, including BSNL. So, this phase of consolidation is going to bring in greater stability, more investment and better technology.
When you move from an eight-nine player market to a two-three player one, you have to pool spectrum. Spectrum is a resource which should not be wasted. Once it is wasted, it is gone for ever. Similarly, if you look at what is happening in the business models, they are also changing. People are moving from voice to data; and from plain vanilla services to value-added services. The legacy companies that did not invest in new technology are being replaced by new players with the newest technology. The inter-ministerial group recently came up with a set of recommendations. What it said was, there was stress in the sector but it was not uniform. Stress is there in some pockets and with some players. To give cash relief to the sector, the IMG recommended mergers and pooling of spectrum. The Telecom Commission is looking at it.
Some schemes under the Universal Service Obligation Fund have recently been approved.
We have more or less achieved access [to telecommunication]—about 1.19 billion telephone connections and about 98 per cent of geographic coverage are there. However, in areas affected by left-wing extremism, the northeast and Andaman and Nicobar islands, there are about 40,000 uncovered villages. Under the USOF, we are focusing on connecting the unconnected. And the second big thrust is broadband. India needs to get on the broadband highway. So, we have the Bharat Net project. We are just completing the phase-1 rollout of one lakh gram panchayats.
Andamans is a strategically important area for India. So we are putting in a submarine cable. It will help tourism as well. In the northeast, we are putting in some 6,000 new towers across the region. We are also strengthening the fibre optic infrastructure there.
Many areas in the states of Telan-gana, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Maharashtra are affected by left-wing extremism. These areas do not have basic mobile connectivity. We are bringing in 4G in these areas. Connectivity has been a perennial problem in Jammu and Kashmir as well. When we complete these projects, by 2022, we expect that there will be no Indian who is not connected, and no part of India which is not connected.
India adopted 3G and 4G late. What are we doing not to miss the bus when 5G comes?
Indian telecom companies have already started doing pilots for 5G. Internet of things [IoT] has huge applications for India, especially in smart cities, autonomous cars and health care platforms. Startups are quite active in IoT. We believe that the new economic opportunity for the telcos will be in 5G. They will not want to lose it.
India has been an active participant in the International Standards for 5G. Earlier, in all the generations of technology, all the products were designed for western model. Since India has been part of it this time, products will be tailor-made for India. So adoption will be faster. Some of our technical institutes have started developing local capabilities so that we can have a Make in India programme around 5G. We have been importing telecom equipment, and 5G is an opportunity for us to change that. Also, India's capabilities are fairly significant in software. Networks are moving towards software-defined ones, and India has an advantage. We will be an early adopter of 5G.
There is an opinion that the white paper presented by the committee of experts (headed by Justice B.N. Srikrishna) on data protection has not given the due importance to Aadhaar data.
For Aadhaar, there is a specific act. It is a precursor to the data protection bill. There are well-defined principles—how do you collect data; when do you collet data; why do you collect data; how much data do you collect; and how long do you keep the data. The point is, do not collect unnecessary data; do not collect it without consent; do not keep it longer than necessary; use it only for the purpose the consent has been given for. Aadhaar is the only data which is protected by an act. Rightly so because it contains your biometric information. It contains personally sensitive information. Even the IT Act clearly recognises that whenever your information is personally sensitive, it needs a higher category of protection. That protection is provided in the Aadhaar Act. Now we are trying to make people aware of the protections available in the Aadhaar Act. If the committee of experts finds that this is not enough and even more protection is needed, we will look into it.
The national telecom policy is due.
We have completed discussions with all the stakeholders, and expect to complete the first draft in a few weeks. Then it will be open for the public's views. It is going to be a landmark policy because telecommunication is the backbone of Digital India. If India wants to grow digitally we have to put in place a robust telecom infrastructure. There is a lot of work to be done—broadband access, quality of service, getting new technologies. We also have a lot of work to do in telecom manufacturing. We have to look at data protection and the security of networks. We have to make sure that more investment comes to the sector. For all these, the new telecom policy is going to be very important.
We will have five pillars. The first pillar is ensuring that every Indian is connected and broadband is available to all Indians. The second would be Make in India. We cannot have a situation where India continues to import 80 per cent of its telecom equipment. Third, we have to look at ease of doing business to bring in investment to the sector. We are thinking that all clearances should be available online. We want to do away with a lot of import licences. We want to bring in a transparent policy for spectrum. On the infrastructure front, India needs much more fibre. So we are going to work with the state governments. While state governments look at IT as something which brings in a lot of jobs, they don't seem to think that telecom sector also requires that kind of support. Telecom sector, in fact, is the fundamental platform. Without telecom, you cannot have IT. Then we have to bring in new technologies like 5G and cloud. How can India become a big centre of cloud and data? All these will be part of the new telecom policy. We are also looking at how to encourage startups in the telecom sector.