Broad-basing Broadband

Posted by Shyam Ponappa at Oct 11, 2010 11:35 AM |
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Education and training through the Internet need Commonwealth Games-like crisis management, says Shyam Ponappa in an article on broadband for education and training published in the Business Standard on 7 October 2010.

The central government and the Delhi administration have shown they can engage in sheer execution to save face for the Commonwealth Games. Couldn’t our governments choose to make similar efforts to improve an aspect of infrastructure that is perhaps the most powerful means for enhancing our productive capacity and quality of life: broadband? One might ask: why broadband, and not energy, water/sanitation, or roads…? While all infrastructure is essential, broadband gives the quickest, biggest bang for the buck, because of its nature vis-à-vis energy, water or transportation and our regulatory environment and functional organisation (for instance, the complexity of addressing power supply). If we could increase mobile phone coverage to present levels by reducing costs and increasing availability, it should be possible to do so for personal computer (PC) also, to draw on the wealth of free educational and training material for our vast numbers.

Unfortunately, for such infrastructure, there is no triggering crisis like the threat of failure of the Commonwealth Games, and consequently, no face-saving or glam factors, like the arrival of foreign teams and visitors. This article makes a case for a Commonwealth Games-type crisis management for broadband through a collage of factors.

Consider these aspects of our demographics1:

  • Nearly 460 million people are aged between 13 and 35 today.
  • Of these, 333 million are literate.
  • In 10 years from now, the countrywide average age will be 29, compared to 37 in the US and China, 45 in Europe, and 48 in Japan.
  • As many as 100 million Indians — the combined labour forces of Britain, France, Italy, and Spain — are projected to be added to our workforce by 2020, which is 25 per cent of the global workforce.

This indicates our productive potential. Its realisation would require education and training, efficient functioning, i.e. the matrix of enabling infrastructure, and organisation. If these needs remain unmet, the demographic opportunity can become the liability of an unproductive population, with attendant difficulties and social hazards.

We have many formal and informal institutions providing training and education. We add nearly 300,000 engineering graduates every year to our pool of 2 million engineers. India’s vocational training capacity is estimated at 3.1 million a year, whereas about 12.8 million people enter the workforce. However, the National Sample Survey (2004) found that only 2 per cent of the 15-29 age group had formal vocational training and another 8 per cent had non-formal vocational training. In the developed economies, the proportion of skilled workers is 60-80 per cent; Korea has 96 per cent skilled workers.2

Five years ago, McKinsey reported that only a quarter of India’s engineers were employable in the IT industry. Recently, a survey showed this has reduced to 18 per cent.3

Apart from training and education in specific disciplines, the processes that make for good work practices are: systems thinking, a scientific temper, and goal-oriented work practices to meet standards of quality and time. Then there are the attributes of playing team, while engaging in a hard-charging individual effort. All these skills and practices are necessary and can be learned and renewed over time.

How will our workforce of over 500 million, adding 12.8 million every year, have access to continuing education and training, information for civic amenities and facilities and easy, efficient access to commercial and public services? What about the prerequisites of schooling, vocational training and university education? To answer these questions, consider parallel developments in domains such as distance education, e-learning and smart applications. Here are glimpses of the transformation underway in university and secondary education, especially outside India:

  • iTunes U has become one of the world’s largest educational catalogues for free educational material. After three years, there are over 300 million downloads. Over 800 universities have their websites at iTunes U, including many of the top universities from the US, UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore and so on.
  • Khan Academy (, a brilliant, free educational site by an ex-hedge fund analyst and manager, Salman Khan (Salman Khan of Silicon Valley, not Bollywood), covers mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, with over 18 million page views in August ( Started in late 2006, Khan is reportedly developing an open-ended set of material covering many subjects, and is a favourite among people like Bill Gates, and John and Ann Doerr (Fortune: Of the 200,000 students who access this site every month, only 20,000 are from India.
  • There are many other educational sites from school level upwards, for instance, the Open Courseware Consortium ( by MIT, with US members like the University of California (Berkeley), Michigan and so on. Many universities and schools have their own websites. There is the Wikiversity, with portals from pre-school through primary to tertiary education, non-formal education and research (see

India, BCG estimates that Internet usage will increase from 7 per cent of the population in 2009 to 19 per cent in 2015 (237 million). PC penetration, which was just 4 per cent in 2009, is estimated at 17 per cent by 2015 (216 million). To quote BCG: “India has among the highest PC costs and lowest PC availability of all the BRIC countries (including Indonesia).” Mobile phone penetration, however, is 10 times higher, at 41 per cent. This appalling situation needs to be redressed.


Hundreds of millions of Indians should use these websites and the Internet for radical transformation. This will require policies and practices aimed at providing:

  • inexpensive access to broadband;
  • greater access to PCs and PC-equivalents as they evolve (e.g. Pranav Mistry’s SixthSense); and
  • systems and processes that encourage distance education, and discipline in all fields, with professionalism and excellence across all activities.

Regulations and tax regimes determine which activities are profitable, and to what extent. This is where the government and its policies come in. Could Internet users in India converge public opinion to rouse governments to address these needs, emulating the example of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit?


  2. Employment Report, Ministry of Labour, July 1, 2010: 


Read the original article in the Business Standard


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