It is claimed that Telecom and Information Technology (IT) sectors are success stories in India. It is true that the growth in India’s tele-density is remarkable. So is our capability for building clever software for export. However, what we forget is the fact that IT and telecom are only means to an end and not an end in themselves. ICT is only an enabler and unless it is utilised effectively for socio-economic benefits, it’s growth is of little relevance. Mobile telephones have been used by the masses for furthering their economic well-being. Nevertheless, the same can not be said for software applications nor can we say that we have fully utilised the capabilities of the telecommunication revolution.
Basically, ICT is an aid for efficiency improvement. ICT works by transforming tedious manual processes into efficient time saving processes. True advantage does not come from mere conversion of the manual process to a computer based process but rather through the use of Business Process Re-engineering. This is possible because a computer enables quick reference to huge data bases and fast processing of data and information. Add mobility to it and you have an even more potent tool for transaction efficiency improvement. ICT with mobility amounts to mobile computing a field which offers immense innovative possibilities.
There are various initiatives being undertaken in India in this regard. There is also a need to look at what could and needs to be done.
Lack of access
Access to ICT is limited due to the non-availability of telecommunication links that are adequate to handle applications. Generally, we need to have broadband access capabilities to be able to fully exploit the ICT potential. Fixed line network was available a few years back when the wireless revolution took over. But there has hardly been any increase in this infrastructure after that. Thus, the number of lines and the areas where such lines are available are limited. In India, we face an additional problem. Though, some of the networks are new, the maintenance practices have not been up to the mark. Therefore, the existing network can not be used to the fullest for providing broadband connectivity. This further limits the availability of access to ICT in large parts of the country.
As far as the TV coaxial cable network is concerned, it is an excellent media, provided healthy installation practices are used and the network is converted into a two way network rather than being one way. In India though, the number of homes with TV are more than 60 million (this may sound impressive), the fact is that coverage is neither universal nor is it deep enough, leaving large tracts of land uncovered. In addition, the quality of installation (tree top hanging of cable) is not conducive for broadband operations. Any attempt to use one of these technologies and particularly the DSL technology in the rural areas with lower user population density is bound to be quite expensive and non-remunerative.
Fortunately, the developments in the open standards based wireless systems have solved the technological and economic limitations. A vast variety of wireless systems are available at costs which make access to ICT more or less affordable. Therefore, the obvious approach is to quickly deploy such systems in areas which are currently not served. Since techno-economic solutions are available to overcome the access to ICT, why do we still have such poor access as judged from the slow growth of broadband connections over the last seven years when the broadband policy of the government was announced? There are clearly some reasons.
Quite evidently, there is a need to empower the telecommunications industry to provide broadband connectivity to freely and readily allot WiMax and 4G spectrum. Spectrum availability is a problem in all countries but countries with a vision have planned the vacation of suitable bands well in advance of the requirements. It is worth noting that even US was relatively slow in broad-banding the country as compared to the European countries and was far behind Korea and Japan.
Availability of appropriate content
When access to ICT is made easy, there is no guarantee that it will indeed be used unless the content made available is of direct relevance and direct interest to the users. A large part of any programme to utilise ICT needs to have a component of understanding customers. For example, to understand the content requirement of ICT based education, local factors have to be considered which in turn will depend on the nature of the predominant interests and activities in a given area or community. Limited generalisations are only possible since the requirements are usually area specific and also depend on related factors such as willingness to try new ideas and new approaches.
In the light of the prevalent high levels of illiteracy in the country, a very important factor for quick, easy and result producing ICT applications is to determine from consumer interaction, how friendly the ICT programme is for the illiterate. Therefore, the programmes may have to be tuned substantially and may differ from region to region, financial factors are also critical. Financial factors not only refer to the affordability aspect of ICT but also depend on what cost such services can be actually provided. A very important issue here is the usefulness of the content or the cost benefit of a particular ICT application. In this respect, wireless technology is a major positive factor for keeping the costs low. Understandably, besides location of the user other factors such as age, local culture and background become important before ICT is embraced by the masses.