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Ambani v Pitroda

I am large, I contain multitudes.

This is true, for sure, about India, on track to become the most populous nation in five years.

India contains many visions and plans, not necessarily congruent, about connecting citizens to the Internet. The Walt Whitman line surely applies to what happens in Indian ICT policy too.

Sam Pitroda worked up a plan to do the job using state-owned enterprises. Unsurprisingly, it proceeded over budget and behind schedule under the UPA. The Modi government’s solution was better execution and a new name. Progress is being made if counted by km of fiber laid, but not if measured in terms of people connected to the Internet.

Now here comes Jio. Will Ambani consign Pitroda and his NOFN to the dustbin of history? Or will the decision makers understand the need to make the millions spent on laying fiber serve innovators like Ambani?

Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio service is a symbol of the surging tech market in India, which has more than 1 billion cellphone users but the lowest rate of Internet penetration of any major economy.

It is also a sign of the power of a good deal: Jio is offering mobile data and Internet-based calling within India free of charge for six months. That has forced competitors to reduce their rates and is expected to make mobile data more affordable for Indian consumers, who pay some of the highest prices in the world, in terms of purchasing power, to surf on their smartphones.

That could go a long way toward expanding Internet access in India, where only about one-third of the 1.3 billion people go online regularly.

Poor fixed-line infrastructure means that most use the Internet on their phones — but patchy cellular data networks and electricity shortages in rural areas are barriers to the “digital India” that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has boasted of creating.

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