Can India become a digital superpower?

Can India become a digital superpower?

Last month (September 2015) saw a wave of euphoria about India as the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited and wooed the who’s who of Silicon Valley. He seemed to have rock star status as many of the CEOs of Silicon Valley tried to jump on the India bandwagon to raise their profile among India’s 1.2 billion plus population. But on a serious note, is all this interest going to translate into something bigger, in terms of triggering an innovation ecosystem that enables India to become a new digital superpower?

I’ve observed and written about Indian technology sector since 1993, and this is the first time I’ve noticed that the world has actually taken India seriously, and not just a place where there’s huge poverty and that the tech sector is just a cheap software offshoring destination.

While Prime Minister Modi was in the valley, I was in Bangalore, seeing wall to wall coverage of his USA visit, and how deals have been signed with US tech companies to enhance the Digital India and Make in India initiatives. One of the big announcements resulting from the visit was from Qualcomm, who announced its intention to invest up to $150 million in Indian startup companies across all stages as part of its commitment to India.

I met with Kartheepan Madasamy, who heads up Qualcomm Ventures in India to talk about this, and learned that Qualcomm is investing directly in the Indian mobile and internet start-up sector to foster the local ecosystem – it already has more than 20 Indian companies as part of its global portfolio, and includes hardware, software platforms, e-commerce, healthcare, location based services and retail technology. The new fund will particularly look at investing in internet of everything (IoE) startups.

On announcing the fund, his executive chairman, Dr. Paul E. Jacobs, commented, “We share Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. India is at the cusp of a technology revolution and mobile technologies will lay the foundation for Digital India. We are committed to providing local innovative start-ups with the support needed to help India’s IoE ecosystem grow, increasing consumer choice and availability.”

The Digital India initiative is certainly having an effect on enabling a positive contribution from the Indian and global tech community. I met with and spoke to many Indian companies to see how they are making an impact on both the wider world and within India to align with this and other government initiatives in the tech space. And what is obvious is that the India story is way beyond just about software outsourcing, as I believe the smart Indian companies are looking at how they can provide much greater value.

There is also a trend towards developing the tech entrepreneur ecosystem in India to address all aspects of life. I was part of Tech London Advocates’ (TLA) Bangalore launch event, and it was clear from the Indian speakers on the various panels that ‘startups’ in India are the new Bollywood – everyone wants to do a startup, and doing a startup is now considered glamorous. The event, to encourage collaboration and connectivity between London and Bangalore’s tech networks, was attended by a 100-strong audience of leading VCs and tech entrepreneurs and startups, and a result of the event was the creation of a TLA Bangalore working group.

But beyond the startups, there is a lot more happening in India that aligns with the trends in connectivity, IoT, wearables, and content delivery that is happening around the world. This was evident not just in India, but at two other conferences I attended in recent weeks – the IBC conference in Amsterdam, that looks at the latest in broadcast technologies and content creation and delivery solutions, and the IoT Solutions World Congress in Barcelona, which looks at how the internet of things is impacting various aspects of modern life.

At IBC, Indian company Amagi, a leader in cloud-based broadcast infrastructure and targeted TV advertising, was a winner of an IBC2015 Innovation Award. Its content regionalization solution enables TV networks to deliver localized channels in a more affordable and efficient manner than traditional satellite and fiber-based delivery methods. This is becoming increasingly important as television viewers around the world continue to demand more personalized content. Amagi won the award based on its unique ability to replace key content on Sundance Channel Global’s Latin American feed with content specifically geared toward the Brazilian audience, without using separate satellite feeds or degrading audio visual quality. I met with the CEO and they are hoping to revitalise regional channel localized advertising in the UK too.

At the IoT Solutions World Congress, I met with various Indian companies involved in the IoT (internet of things) space, but the big announcement was related to a Reliance Energy/Intel smart city pilot to build a smart sustainable city network in Mumbai. In the first phase, Reliance will connect smart meters, streetlights and distribution automation equipment in Mumbai. This will be the first roll-out in India of smart meters fully compliant to the communication standards recently adopted in the machine-to-machine (M2M) roadmap by the government of India.

Smart cities are of course the one of the big initiatives of the Indian government. It plans to build 100 new smart cities besides developing modern satellite towns around existing cities under its smart city program, with an allocation of INR 70.6 Billion (US$ 1.2 Billion) for smart cities in the Union Budget for 2014-15.

The smart cities mission sets the template to create examples of smart cities that can be replicated both within and outside the smart city, and further catalyze the creation of similar smart cities in other regions and parts of the country. It aims to drive economic growth and improve the quality of life of people by promoting local development and using technology as a means to create a better livelihood, quality and standard of life and better delivery of civic facilities for citizens. The strategy of the mission is to create a pan-city initiative in which at least one smart solution is applied all across the city.

This is part of a larger plan to develop industrial corridors or regions of industrial development connecting big metropolitan cities. The Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), the Chennai-Bangalore Industrial Corridor (CBIC) and the Bangalore-Mumbai Economic Corridor (BMEC) are examples of this approach. Many industrial and commercial centers are expected to be recreated as smart cities along these corridors. About seven new smart cities are expected to be developed as the nodes of the corridor in its first phase along the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), which is spread across six states.

The chairman and managing director of Allied Digital, Nitin Shah, told me about the recently announced inauguration of the ‘Pune Safe City Project’ by the chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. The contract was awarded by the government of Maharashtra with the aim to help enhance the safety and security of Pune city inhabitants. With the new system, the city of Pune in Maharashtra will benefit from a state-of-the-art 24×7 video surveillance and security command center.

The Pune Safe City project has already enabled successful detection of events such as theft, traffic violation, chain snatching and high profile robberies and murder cases amongst others and this project has helped in solving the crime in a short time which has resulted in increasing the efficiency of policing. The project covers an area of 640 sq. km with 1250+ IP (internet protocol) cameras 440 junctions, command and control center and viewing stations at police stations in the city. The total cost of the project that includes services for five years is around US$ 34 million.

What’s clear is that India is seeing a huge growth in the tech startup ecosystem, and as demonstrated by the huge interest in the London-Bangalore initiative launched by Tech London Advocates, there is a hunger to connect with the global tech ecosystem. This will enable greater innovation, collaboration, and global development, to help more companies potentially think global; globalization won’t just be confined to the big few companies like HCL, Infosys, Tata or Wipro.

In addition, the desire by government to both empower citizens through digital technologies, and the keenness of big global tech giants like Qualcomm and others to invest in the Indian mobile and digital ecosystem and jump on the India bandwagon (which seems to be the only ray of hope for potential growth out of the BRICS nations at present) offers great opportunity for a wave of innovation in India that could see it leapfrog other nations and become a ‘digital superpower’.

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