The dusty National Highway 1 wends through the mountains of Ladakh, touching at the roof of the world where the oxygen is low, the colours are muted, and everything feels fresh.

Drive south past the shrines of Shimla and you’ll reach the streets of New Delhi, throbbing with colours and conviction. Now India needs to upgrade its digital highway – and that has been the key priority of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship programme, Digital India.

Its efforts to extend network infrastructure put it in a “better position to tackle the challenges from Covid-19”, says Prasath Rao, India and South Asia Country Manager at Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise (ALE). He discusses the opportunities and promise of the Digital India initiative.

Modernising India’s network

When the pandemic hit, millions of citizens were forced to work remotely. That created a surge in network traffic that “nobody envisaged”, Prasath says. India’s network had always existed “in pockets” – limited to tier one cities or certain hotspots. “It was never meant to cater to this new normal.”

India’s government and telecom service providers realised this, and accelerated efforts to modernise infrastructure, he says.

Having a secure network will be “extremely essential for India”, Prasath adds. India’s government has taken decisive steps in securing its mobile & terrestrial network infrastructure, amending license rules to ensure equipment are purchased only from authorised sources, Times of India reported.

The country’s small businesses were hit hard by network challenges during the pandemic – and will now benefit greatly from the government’s Digital India Initiative that aims to make networks highly available, modern, and secure, he says.

Digitising rural villages

India’s rural economy contributes about 46 per cent to national income, according to the World Economic Forum. The government embarked on a Digital Village programme to connect every rural village and equip rural Indians with digital skills.

The biggest recipient of this effort will be the farmers, students, healthcare workers & essential service providers in these villages, Prasath says. “But it’s not going to be easy to wire 600,000 villages.”

The government has collaborated with different stakeholders to lay the cables across the country and build infrastructure for wireless connections for the last mile, he adds.

ALE has helped in this effort, connecting about 7000 villages thus far. “We ensure the wireless access points are always up and running, and also cater to stringent security requirements and extreme weather conditions.”

All of its access points connect to a locally-hosted network management platform, he adds. That makes it easier for the government to monitor the network and be alerted if specific villages are facing connectivity issues.

Smart cities

India also embarked on its Smart Cities Mission in 2015, with ambitions to help 100 cities kickstart their digital transformation. “We want to see a complete facelift and transformation of an area of the city,” Jagan Shah, Director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs, told GovInsider.

Last year, cities like Agra and Kakinada set up digital telemedicine platforms to reduce the strain on healthcare facilities.

Nagpur, India’s 13th most populous city, has turned to tech to monitor waste collection and improve street sanitation. It has also implemented a city-wide surveillance network equipped with facial recognition to increase public safety, the Chief Executive Officer of its Smart & Sustainable City Development Corporation told GovInsider.

Smart cities will play a crucial role in India’s drive to economic growth. It’s all about improving lives and putting people first, Prasath says. ALE has customised its smart city solutions for some cities, with its ruggedized network switches and access points carrying critical and sensitive data across city to the monitoring center.

ALE is helping majority of India’s metro operators enable IoT applications and connect standalone systems into an integrated system for greater efficiency, he adds. The company also ensures its wireless network infrastructure and data centers are easily deployable and interoperable, he adds.

India is well on its way to becoming a digitally advanced country. Connectivity and a robust network infrastructure will be crucial in this journey.