The Dream of Digital Integration

The Smart Cities and Digital India initiatives have opened up business opportunities for the private sector but are we serious enough about what needs to be done?

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Getting different arms of the government together to integrate the digital and telecom infrastructure for Smart Cities is a mammoth task in itself. Funding such an integration to make it a reality is yet another story in itself. By now every aware citizen knows that connectivity at lightning fast speeds is the key to any smart city in the world. This means that any city will only be called a smart city if it has world-class digital infrastructure and telecommunications as its backbone. What will such a digital infrastructure do for the city? It will integrate a city’s traffic, power, security, banking, public records, healthcare, waste management, emergency services and sanitation among a host of other services. It becomes pertinent to ask, then: Are we in India on track to have in place the basic essentials of such a smart city? Probably not. According to a United Nations Broadband Commission report called ‘The State of Broadband’ released on September 21, 2015 at the UN, India ranked 131 out of 189 countries on fixed-broadband subscriptions in 2014, a drop from the 125th rank a year before. India is ranked 155 on active mobile-broaband subscriptions, a significant drop from the 113th rank in 2013 and India was ranked 136th in individuals using the Internet in 2014, with 18 percent individuals using the net. And when it comes to per­centage of households with internet in 2014, India ranked 80 among 133 developing countries. Nigel Eastwood, Founder and Group CEO of New Call Telecom International recently wrote in the Economic Times: “Telecom is the key area to create a smart city which will react to needs of its population digitally and also keep the city tick­ing with the least human interven­tion, in the smartest possible way.” Things on the ground are far removed from reality, it seems. While the government has taken note of the urgent need to integrate Machine to Machine (M2M) com­munication, the mission of integrat­ing various government depart­ments that fall under different ministries – each with their own ambitions and aspirations – is a challenge facing it from within. That is why in May 2015, the De­partment of Telecommunications (DoT) came out with a national M2M roadmap that will serve as a single reference document for all the M2M stakeholders in India. Launching the initiative, Commu­nications and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had said: “Adoption of M2M-based applications in areas like healthcare, tele-educa­tion, smart grid, smart building, smart city etc. have enormous po­tential to boost the socio-economic development of the country.” No dispute here. There are even sug­gestions of an integrated task force consisting of key ministries like roads, health, power and home among others. But so far, things are looking good only on paper, many feel. M2M refers to technologies that allow both wireless and wired sys­tems to communicate with other devices of the same ability. M2M uses a device (such as a sensor or meter) to capture an event, which is relayed through a network (wireless, wired or hybrid) to an application, that translates the captured event into meaningful information. Sensing Opportunity For the private sector, though, the Smart Cities and Digital India initi­atives of the NDA government have opened up business opportunities, especially for global telecom firms. The world’s largest telecom equip­ment maker Ericsson is betting big on 5G technology, which it says should be in service by 2020. According to Ericsson, 5G is the next step in the evolution of mobile communication and will be a key component of the Networked Soci­ety by bringing unlimited access to information and sharing of data “anywhere and anytime for anyone and anything. 5G will therefore not only be about mobile connectivity for people. Rather, the aim of 5G is to provide ubiquitous connectivity for any kind of device and any kind of application that may benefit from being connected,” said the company in its communication on 5G which will provide wireless connectivity for a wide range of new applications and use cases, including wearables, smart homes, traffic safety/control, and critical infrastructure and in­dustry applications, as well as for very-high-speed media delivery. Rima Qureshi, Senior Vice Presi­dent & Chief Strategy Officer, Erics­son, says: “5G is about more than faster mobile services – it will ena­ble new use cases related to the In­ternet of Things. For example, Eric­sson has built a prototype testbed for applying 5G networking func­tions and data analytics to public transport, which can save resources, reduce congestion, and lower envi­ronmental impact.” Russian telecom major Sistema JSFC that operates the MTS brand in India across nine circles has al­ready announced its intention to roll out a pilot project for the Smart Cities initiative and to explore a sus­tainable business model for moneti­sation of Wi-Fi networks. MTS says it has the capability to replicate the Smart City subsystems that it has already implemented back home in Sochi, Ufa and Mos­cow, among other Russian cities. Sistema’s systems integration com­pany Sitronics offers design, equip­ment, integrated security and intel­ligent transportation systems including automation for intelligent traffic management across Moscow. Recently, MTS India’s CEO had told a newspaper that MTS could repli­cate the Moscow city model that will decongest Indian roads while offer­ing an organised traffic manage­ment system, simultaneously. Russian conglomerate Sistema is already looking at monetising Wi-Fi projects across key railway sta­tions in Agra, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Howrah, Secunderabad and Vara­nasi. Funding Challenges The 100 smart cities project saw its first formal announcement in July 2014 during the finance minister’s Budget speech. Back then the allocation for this initiative was kept at Rs. 7,016 crore. After that, the figure has swollen to Rs. 48,000 crore to be spent over the next five years in order to achieve the goals of the project – 100 Smart Cities in India by 2022. It seems different sizes of the existing cities will need a different quantum of budgets to make them ‘smart’. According to Gulam Zia, Executive Director of Knight Frank India, Mumbai’s need for funds alone could run in thousands of crores versus, say, Varanasi where Rs. 500 crore may be enough to undertake some of the digital integration and other projects to make the city smarter. The final bill is anyone’s guess.