India is on the cusp of a revolution, writes Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt in Reimagining India. Exclusive excerpts:

 

In spite of its well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s leading information technology and software development hubs, India is far from being the connected society many foreigners imagine…. Today India, with a population of 1.2 billion people, has more than 600 million mobile-phone users but only about 150 million people who regularly connect to the internet. In 2011, India’s internet penetration rate (the percentage of the population using the internet) was 11%, according to the International Telecommunication Union. That’s far below that of developed nations, where penetration rates average 70%, and less than a third of China’s penetration ratio of 38%. It’s also less than half the penetration rates for all developing countries, which average 24%. The number of India’s broadband users, 20 million, is even smaller. By any reasonable definition, India is an internet laggard. To me, the internet in India today feels a little like where it was in America in about 1994 — four years before Google was even born.

The good news is that there’s tremendous potential for increased internet penetration to have a positive impact on India’s economy and society. India is on the cusp of a connectivity revolution. I believe India has the chance to leapfrog its current connectivity challenges, bring internet access to a majority of its citizens — and even raise its penetration ratio to 60 or 70% within the next five to ten years. Connecting its next 500 million will make India the largest open-access internet market in the world. In 10 years’ time, I predict it will be almost impossible for any child in India to imagine what life was like before the internet. But to realise that promise, India must make the right technology choices.

One key choice will be how and how quickly India builds out the fixed-line networks in its cities and towns. Fibreoptic cables are, by far, the best way to promote higher connectivity. You want to bury them underground in every place you can: every road, every path, every ditch, every piece of land…. A second area to get right is cellular technology. India should make the transition from 2G and 3G to 4G technology as quickly as possible because 4G makes far more efficient use of the spectrum and users can get so much more bandwidth out of it. It may take time for India to achieve these two goals because its telecommunications industry is undercapitalised and has a lot of debt. But I am confident that eventually the transformation will happen.

Investing in a bigger, faster telecommunications network will have a big payoff for India as that network combines with one of the most radically life-altering developments of the last decade: the emergence of moderately priced mobile devices.

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In India, this phenomenon is sure to unleash a customer-driven revolution on a scale we’ve never seen before — in education, financial services, health care, entertainment, and almost every conceivable aspect of life. In education alone, the possibilities are staggering: Parents who believe their children are not getting proper instruction in local schools will be able to use mobile phones or tablets to help fulfil their kids’ educational needs. Great teachers can connect to children in remote villages. Indian students can watch Ivy League professors on YouTube or share knowledge and ideas by video chat with experts or other students thousands of kilometres away. Similar changes are in store for banking and financial services. India has a huge number of people whose banking needs are underserved. The government’s Unique Identification project, led by my friend Nandan Nilekani, is creating enormous new possibilities for e-commerce. Already, we’re seeing the emergence of many new start-ups created to help middleand lower-income consumers move money around, and because of the sheer scale of the market in India, these new businesses are likely to be highly profitable.

I see the creative potential of India’s people all around me in Silicon Valley, where India-born entrepreneurs account for 40% of startups. Just think what will happen when India’s entrepreneurial innovators are able to create great global companies without leaving their country. They’ll change the world.

Hundreds of large firms focused on the internet will be founded and will succeed by focusing purely on Indian consumers, Indian taste, Indian style, Indian sports. Can one of those companies ultimately become the next Google? Of course. That may not happen for quite a few years. But if India plays its cards right, we’ll soon see Indian engineers and small businesses tackling Indian problems first, then exporting the solutions that work best.

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Internet freedom will produce information and images that are displeasing, even appalling to many segments of society. False accusations and hateful commentary are inevitable, if unfortunate, components of the internet mix. But trying to control what people say is a losing proposition. It’s much better to let good speech overwhelm bad speech, using the kinds of principles that have worked reasonably well on the free and open internet we enjoy in US and other developed countries. Having witnessed India’s progress over the past decade, it is hard not to be optimistic about the next 10 years. Global success and a vast improvement in living conditions for hundreds of millions of its citizens are within the country’s grasp, but only if India’s leaders invest in the right infrastructure and embrace the transparency and openness of the internet.

Excerpted with permission from
Reimagining India: Unlocking The Potential of Asia’s Next Superpower