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India: 5G and Digital Inclusion

An evolution in connectivity in a country of 1.3 Bn will bring in opportunities and change

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In a growing economy like India with a great digital divide, the deployment of 5G will disrupt the day-to-day lives of people, transform sectors and promote greater inclusivity. It will impact people from all walks of life, generating massive benefits for everyone on both sides of India’s digital divide – and ultimately help close the gap between the haves and have-nots. Early stages of 5G adoption in India will see sectors such as manufacturing, energy and utilities, smart cities, public safety, and transport transforming varied aspects of their businesses to unleash the true potential of this technology.

Despite its modest name, 5G is not just an incremental improvement over 4G; it is a quantum leap forward that is expected to enable a vast range of powerful and new use cases while providing top-notch internet connectivity to everyone.

5G is helping reimagine connectivity like never before – with the phenomenal speeds that it boasts of data can be moved at a speed that effectively shrinks time and physical space – enabling network devices and applications to operate almost as if they were right next to each other and physically connected, making the world appear a lot more seamless than before.

Today’s businesses across sectors are aiming for newer ways of operating and doing business. There is increased emphasis on exploiting edge-to-cloud solutions to maintain business continuity and ease multi-site, multi-location operations. 5G adoption coupled with edge computing and availability of secured connectivity across the chain is creating a compelling story for the development of these use cases and the discovery of a lot many new ones.

The recent report by the US-India CEO Forum on the Future of Connectivity in India highlights the disparity in broadband access for India’s population living in rural and remote areas. As of 2019, only 21 per cent of the rural populace were broadband subscribers vis-à-vis 74 per cent in urban areas. This is leaving a large section of our society from participating in the digital economy and benefiting from it.

India’s digital economy is expected to witness a potential five-fold increase to reach USD 1Tn by 2025. The key to achieving this will be a connectivity strategy and a roadmap that is aligned towards various personas including the underprivileged and rural India, hence considerations would go far beyond the technological aspects. This would help foster a blueprint that is inclusive as well as future-ready. This need is clearly understood at varying levels as we see various initiatives and programs unfurl building a pan-India broadband network for rural connectivity. Continued government focus on Digital India programs and initiation of public-private partnerships for the roll out of digital infrastructure would be essential to drive broadband connectivity to all parts of the nation.

Addressing Digital Inclusion & Digital Divide

As a wireless technology that offers top-notch performance, 5G makes it easier to deploy a fully-capable IT infrastructure across all of India – leapfrogging the limitations of previous technologies and existing physical infrastructure, and helping to eliminate the digital divide by giving everyone in the country ready access to high-speed internet and the latest digital innovations.

At the same time, 5G opens the door to a variety of powerful use cases that could directly improve digital inclusion.

Equal education for all. Through expanded and enhanced remote learning, 5G may prove to be the answer to quality education for all in India – whether urban or rural, rich or poor – full online access to high-quality educational content, including virtual classrooms with real-time interaction between teachers and students, can greatly ease the problem of bringing in the quality learning experience to remote areas.

Quality healthcare for all. Through 5G-enabled virtual visits and remote diagnostics and treatments – and perhaps even surgeries – people in underserved regions and populations will be able to receive high-quality healthcare.

Better living for all. 5G promises to be a key enabler for smart homes and smart cities, helping people across India live more safely and comfortably. In homes, 5G will be instrumental in making them more secure by allowing connected devices to communicate with each other – and with a home’s residents – enabling increased automation and smart control of everything from appliances and security systems to lights, heating, and entertainment. In cities, 5G could enable everything from smart electricity meters and grids to smart law enforcement and crime prevention, traffic control, waste management, and public safety. This could prove to be beneficially in the efficient management of utility resources and plugging in waste and anomalies.

Cutting-edge entertainment for all. 5G can enhance entertainment experiences for everyone in India by allowing access to richer and more satisfying content, including lag-free cloud-based gaming and higher resolution video.

Rising Tide that Lifts all Boats

In addition to the 5G use cases highlighted above, which directly address the digital divide and promote digital inclusion, 5G can enable a variety of other use cases and innovations that are more broadly beneficial – helping to create a rising social and economic tide that lifts all boats.

Digital manufacturing. 5G is a key enabler for Industry 4.0 and the Indian government’s Make in India initiative, which aim to improve India’s manufacturing capabilities and productivity while increasing worker comfort and safety. Compelling 5G use cases in manufacturing include increased factory floor automation, autonomous vehicles and robots, and smart predictive maintenance – all of which require reliable, high-speed communication in near real-time.

Digital agriculture. Although farming and 5G might seem like opposite ends of the innovation spectrum, digital technology is actually very important in agriculture – helping to automate, monitor, and optimise operations. 5G technology (combined with IoT sensors) could enable real-time monitoring of crop-related variables such as humidity, temperature, and soil status (smart farming), as well as monitoring and management of connected livestock – helping to maximise production and minimise resource consumption while effectively addressing diseases and other threats.

Potential Obstacles

Although 5G has the potential to shrink India’s digital divide, it also has the potential to aggravate the situation. If digital inclusion and universal 5G access are addressed as before then 5G could actually make the divide steeper with only a section of society’s ability to leverage and benefit from these technology innovations

At the moment, there are three main obstacles to widespread 5G deployment and adoption. First is the current health of India’s telecom industry, which could vastly affect nationwide 5G infrastructure build-out. Second is the ubiquity of 5G-capable devices, which will find natural adoption in the middle and upper segments of the market but may not find takers at the lower end. The third is potential resistance to change from people who are not currently comfortable using digital technologies.

All these issues would likely be resolved naturally in due course of time. However, progressive government policies prioritising ubiquitous 5G deployment and digital inclusion higher than other factors such as revenue generation can provide the necessary impetus.

5G: The Future for a Digital India

Digital India aims to transform our nation into a knowledge-based economy and digitally empowered society with equal opportunity for all. This will require giving everyone in India – no matter how remote or economically disadvantaged – easy access to high-speed internet (and the digital innovations that come with it). 5G is an ideal technology to help achieve the vision, leapfrogging past existing infrastructure and technology barriers to make ubiquitous connectivity an achievable reality – and hopefully making India’s digital divide a thing of the past.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tags assigned to this article:
economy Digital Inclusion digital divide 5G Technology

Som Satsangi

Managing Director, Hewlett Packard Enterprise

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