The coronavirus pandemic is shaping a veritable SuperCloud – floating above India, servicing our needs, our relationships, our dreams. Cooped up at home because of the nationwide lockdown, we are still working diligently, transacting via shopping and banking apps, participating in webinars and conferences, streaming movies and TV shows that are served up magically, and chatting with loved ones for hours over video calls.
Much of India’s physical friction – congested roads, erratic power supply, overloaded transportation system, sparse banking networks – can be avoided by conducting more of our lives digitally.
To date, only the US and China have built an indigenous blend of devices, networks, data centres, applications, and standards that can be termed a genuine SuperCloud delivering an array of customised services.
Unlike US, China
India’s SuperCloud, however, is shaping up to be unique. It’s a mobile-centric SuperCloud with 95 per cent of activities conducted on six-inch screens. Soon, we will be accessing our SuperCloud through a nationwide, blindingly fast 5G network. Vast data centres will be humming away across India. Our start-ups will use artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) to customise services that cater to our specific needs.
India’s privacy and data protection standards could well be the best in the world. India’s SuperCloud could also forge globally leading standards starting with digital identity and payments and going onto privacy, access control, health records, and many others.
The smart connection
India’s SuperCloud is going to be mobile-centric. Smartphone penetration in India is rising rapidly and is expected to reach over 850 million by 2022. Internet users in India already exceed over 600 million, with the vast majority accessing it through their mobile devices. With the lowest 4G prices in the world, Indian users are using more total data on the mobile Internet than users anywhere else. Smartphones pack the power of supercomputers with a dazzling array of functionality stuffed into a 6-7 inch form factor. Our smartphones are thus becoming the remote control for our lives enabling us to operate the world through a variety of well-designed apps.
Smartphones are soon going to be connected up to networks operating at unimaginable speeds. India’s telecom network has already transitioned to 4G, which provides speeds of 5-10 megabytes per second. This is already sufficient for video streaming and multi-participant video conferencing in most parts of the country.
The next generation of 5G networks are likely to be 100 times faster than today’s 4G networks with very low latencies. Such fast networks will enable applications such as self-driving cars, telemedicine, intensive crop surveillance, telepresence, and many others.
Moving forward with data
India’s new data centre policy framework will enable us to build the necessary digital infrastructure to power billions of devices that are connected to superfast 5G networks.
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has now clarified that all financial data should be stored in the country, though it can be processed outside the country. This is driving the rapid growth of data centres across India. Keeping content close to the user also enables low latency access and a better experience. Data and content will therefore rapidly accumulate within India, providing our start-ups with all the necessary resources to develop new services using AI/ML.
For instance, streaming services will be able to rapidly customise what content menu to offer based on past viewing or listening patterns.
Similarly, food delivery services will quickly be able to figure out weekly shopping patterns and supply those goods automatically. Payments for these services will be deducted from bank accounts, thereby establishing credit histories that will in turn spur customised financial products.
These types of digital services require a strong privacy and data protection framework. The Supreme Court of India has ensured that privacy is a fundamental right.
To that end, the Personal Data Protection Bill was introduced in Parliament in December 2019 to ensure that digital services are appropriately regulated and that our digital lives are provided the same level of privacy as our physical lives. The Bill has now been sent to a joint parliamentary committee where it will go through detailed parliamentary scrutiny. India’s approach to data protection and privacy is significantly different from the US, European Union, and China. As a result, it might well become a standard for non-OECD countries.
SuperCloud on right path
India’s SuperCloud has already forged innovative standards for digital identity (through Aadhaar, our universal e-KYC) and payments (through UPI). These standards have created low-cost public goods that are available to all and resulted in the rapid growth of the SuperCloud.
Along with data protection and privacy, we can establish global standards in many other areas such as in access control and health records. The DigiYatra platform, which was introduced for seamless digital air travel, can easily be enhanced to enable access control for many different purposes such as building access, participation in festivals, and sporting events.
More importantly, a uniform health record for all Indians will not only help in pandemic management, it will also enable universal health care. Ayushman Bharat has already begun work on such a health record standard.
With a digital layer augmenting our limited physical assets, we will be able to sweat our assets better and get more bang from our investment buck. Through the coronavirus pandemic, we have all come to appreciate our digital infrastructure and the power of our smartphones. Now is the time to build our SuperCloud and make it into a powerful force multiplier for India and its economic growth.
Jayant Sinha is the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance in Parliament and a Lok Sabha MP from Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. These are his personal views.