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BW Businessworld

Time To Make The Leap Towards Building Digital Infrastructure

Anand Agarwal Group CEO, Sterlite Technologies speaks to BW Businessworld’s Jyotsna Sharma about the need for speeding up the development of digital infrastructure in India. Excerpts from the interview:

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 India has witnessed major technological and digital advancement over the last five years. What do you think is needed for India to be hailed as a leader in digital infrastructure?

Over the last 15 years or so, there has been a lot of focus on creating voice connectivity. On the technology end, we have done well to create a good telecom industry, which has ensured connectivity for most Indians across the county. However, digital shift is very different from the telecom world. 

In the digital world, there are a multitude of applications -- enterprise application, governance application, education, healthcare, etc. and all of these have become a reality in the last 60-70 days or so. Earlier, we would talk about doing such things, and now we have multiple examples in India as well as globally, where this is being actively done. It was being done earlier in a constrained environment but now it is becoming the new way to work, learn and live.

Work from home is becoming a reality where people are focusing on efficiency rather than constraint. From India’s perspective it is a great time for us to recognise the need and make the leap towards building digital infrastructure. For making that leap, it would be extremely important for India to understand that digital is different from telecom. Digital is more of infrastructure while telecom is more about services.

There are two layers, a very clear layer of application services and technology, and then there is a very strong layer of infrastructure. For the infrastructure layer, a common analogy would be roads infrastructure, where the infrastructure that needs to be created is almost like very large highways. These highways need to reach everywhere and everyone, the capacity needs to be high, the quality has to be extremely high and access has to be for everyone. On these highways then all the applications and services can be laid. Just like we think of any other infrastructure development, like roads, railways, power and boats, we have to start planning for digital infrastructure at a centralized level. We think that the private sector, just as they have built the telecom part of it, will build the digital part as well, which is not an accurate assumption.

Currently, we are at an inflection point in the ecosystem. India has the capacity to become the leading technology provider for the world given its large consumption and manufacturing base much like China back in the day.


Where do we figure currently?

Currently, India has moved up several notches in terms of getting the bandwidth speed on handheld devices, thanks to what has been done by Jio and others in the last two years. So the connectivity, access and speed has all gone up, but now we will not be working on handheld devices anymore. We would be working in larger form factors and with multiple kinds of applications running simultaneously and in that respect India is very far behind. The bulk of the infrastructure in the country today is essentially wireless infrastructure and consists of wireless towers. The amount of fibrerisation per capita, the amount of investment as a percentage of GDP are aspects that India is still extremely poor in.


What can the government do in this regard to help?

The first and foremost thing would be to recognise that this infrastructure has to be seen the same way that roads, railways, highways and power are seen. In a budget plan today, telecom is seen as a revenue generating sector. Similarly, digital infrastructure needs to be seen in the same way.

What we have seen in $2-5 trillion economies around the world is that they spend anywhere between 1 per cent and 2 per cent of their GDP on digital infrastructure. In India, that spend is currently about 0.25 per cent and 90 per cent of that 0.25 per cent is spent by the private sector. That 0.25 per cent has to go up to at least 1 per cent of the GDP.

The role the government has to play is in creating infrastructure and the role private enterprise has to play is in creating services, applications and the global market. Once we realise this and do it, we will go up by several notches.


What are the lessons we have learnt or should learn as a nation from this pandemic? 

Clearly, everyone was unprepared for something like this.  We need to figure out what has to be done on the health side. Further, how companies react to information will be key. For organisations, they will have to strike a balance between ensuring business continuity and employee safety. 


What are the short and long-term plans of your organisation?

We are a large manufacturer of optical fibre with facilities in China, India, Italy and Brazil. Currently, we hold 7 per cent of the global market share and taking it to 10 per cent and are pivoting that strength towards being strong global data network integrator. 

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