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Broadband Internet needs attention: Sunil Abraham

by Prasad Krishna last modified Feb 17, 2014 08:59 AM
Telecom regulation is mostly a success, but wired and wireless broadband needs attention, says Centre for Internet and Society executive director.

The article by Sidin Vadukut was published in Livemint on February 3, 2014. Sunil Abraham was interviewed.


First of all from a policy perspective, how have priorities changed when it comes to technology in India from 2007 to now? Has it moved on from an issue of the infrastructure itself, to how this pipeline is used and managed?

Yes and no. Regarding carriage, telecom regulation has been mostly a success in terms of penetration and affordability, but wired and wireless broadband regulation still needs urgent attention for shared back haul, shared spectrum, unlicensed spectrum, quality of service, etc. We are making slow progress on privacy, security and cross-jurisdictional issues.

In 2014, what do you think are the key public policy issues facing technology in India? What forces do you see colliding with each other?

Privacy and data protection: Here there is conflict with transparency and innovation. Also we have to optimize privacy with security. Free speech: here traditional norms collide with potential of new technologies and energy of digital natives. Intellectual property: here the challenge is how to spread dissatisfaction equally between innovators, entrepreneurs, consumers, state and the public.

The Internet in India, and the many apps that ride on it, is pointed out as a disruptor on many accounts. From politics to social welfare to news and media. Is it too soon to see how Internet has changed Indian society? Or are we beginning to get a sense of this?

I would channel Evgeny Morozov here: there is no such thing as the Internet. Especially in India, many of the so-called data users on mobile phones are trapped within walled gardens created by Google, Facebook and Twitter. In short, specific technologies have social consequences within specific sites. We have anecdotal evidence that the availability of OERs (open educational resources), MOOCs (massive open online courses) and shadow libraries have transformed Indian classrooms in the cities. But there are very few empirical studies establishing causation between the Internet and Indian social phenomena.

When we say Internet in India, we really mean English language Internet in India. How substantial are the efforts to make the web more accessible to non-English speakers? What is holding this back?

The situation is absolutely depressing. For most languages there is a lot of work that remains to be done when it comes to input methods, fonts, rendering technology, spelling and grammar assistance, thesaurus, optical character recognition, text-to-voice, voice-to-text, machine translation, etc. We need large-scale government funding to create market incentives so that the Indian technology gap is bridged using open standards and technologies. We need government mandates to ensure that manufacturers produce some models of their products that comply with these standards.

What two-three policy changes can truly make technology an agent of social change in India?

Device level patent pool and compulsory licence for mobile devices to ensure proliferation of devices at the both ends of the pyramid. We need to move from community radio (FM only) policy to a technology neutral (terrestrial TV, Wi-Fi, mobile technologies, ADSL, fibre, etc) community media policy.

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