The Facebook buyout of WhatsApp set off the predictable discussions in newsrooms and every where else about when an Indian start up would be able to join the same league. Nothing new, there. Since it is time to change a government for a new one at the centre of whatever hue, a small story could give us some tips to answer the question.
In December 2012, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) under Rahul Khullar sent a recommendation to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to allow the deployment of a small band in the 1900 MHz spectrum for a dedicated intra-net platform for universities.
The idea was charmingly simple. This band is great for transmitting data—notice the preponderance of CDMA technology based hand set for segments of this band (contiguous with 1800 MHz). The regulator suggested each government-run university should get about a 5 MHz slice of this band free to deploy their local net facility.
Since those would act within the geographical zone of each university they would not interfere with the networks of the telecom service provider. But the rich data zone they would create would make the students spend quality time on them and the university would be able to do hundreds of experiments on high speed data networks without spending a fortune on buying time on those.
It was in a way the social sector equivalent of the Golden Quadrilateral roads programme of the NDA government. The deployment would have brought quality education within the reach of the weakest of government universities at a cost that would have been a fraction of that deployed to set up massive buildings and hiring of an elusive faculty. It accepted that is impossible to expect bright students to make their mark in the IT world with original thought, if they have to also go around buying airspace time.
The Trai offer would have sat beautifully with this government’s oft quoted plan to invest in aam aadmi. Under Khullar, the regulator tried plenty of times to nudge the telecom department to move on the proposal. The obstacle at one level was again the defence ministry. At another level was it a fear that a government run free Wi-fi network would under cut rich pickings for the telecom companies in the campuses? One doesn’t know and at this stage it doesn’t matter.
But what the government did was to create a shortage. The shortage was not of land or of one created by environmental tangle, but possibly more debilitating. Letting a good idea rot is far more costly for a nation than the delays in setting up of the national manufacturing zones. To replicate the energy of Jan Kuom and Brian Acton requires thinking on the feet and that is what this plan would have brought.
Subhomoy is a Deputy Editor based in New Delhi.