What internet means to an island economy
(Friends, I’ll show how to take notes from this article a bit later.)
24 Aug 2020 Deborshi Chaki
The Andamans just became one of the last Indian territories to get high-speed net. Will new businesses come up?
While the internet in itself will not solve persistent developmental challenges, it does offer a pathway to amplify economic transformations which are already underway.
MUMBAI : On 10 August, when the Prime Ministerinaugurated India’s first 5G-ready undersea optical fibre cable network between the Andamans and Chennai, life came full circle for Sunil Gupta. Around a year ago, he had made the difficult decision to wind up his startup in Bengaluru, a B2B tech platform for the tourism industry, and return to his hometown Port Blair in order to spend more time with his ageing parents.
“I had to close the company because the internet was dismally slow in Port Blair which makes remote working impossible,” said Gupta, who has since his return has opened a tourist hostel for budget travellers in Wandoor beach about 25km from Port Blair. But with data speeds set to improve dramatically once the undersea cable becomes fully operational, Gupta said that those plans have suddenly changed.
“Once connectivity improves, then it doesn’t really matter whether one is in Port Blair or in Bengaluru, rather the cost of operations will be less in Port Blair,” he said.
The 2,300km submarine optical fibre cable link, a long-standing demand among the local population, will deliver a bandwidth of 2×200 gigabits per second (Gbps) between Chennai and Port Blair, and 2×100 Gbps between capital Port Blair and the other islands. Though the internet arrived in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands via satellite connectivity in the early 2000s, data transfer speeds during all these years have been rudimentary.
While users in the Indian mainland upgraded to superfast digital ecosystems, the islands have remained in the 2G era (Lakshadweep will also get an undersea cable soon). Though technically speaking 4G service is available on the islands, it seldom worked. In the absence of proper connectivity, internet bandwidth, a precious commodity in the islands, was kept largely for the exclusive use of the local government machinery, leaving a large portion of the local population without any form of digital connectivity.
Now, the arrival of the undersea cable is expected to usher in an IT and ITes revolution on the islands. The islands have a high literacy rate of 86.6% and a ready workforce made up of a large English-speaking young population. While the internet in itself will not solve persistent developmental challenges—ranging from geographic remoteness to a heavy reliance on the government for the supply of goods and services—it does offer a pathway to amplify economic transformations which are already underway. The internet may finally offer the islanders a reasonable shot at diversifying beyond tourism.
A decade long wait
Located around 1,200km from the Indian mainland in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a former prison colony, carefully chosen for its sheer inaccessibility and remoteness, served as a natural prison for more than a century. The nearest continental landmass from the Andamans is the coast of Myanmar, which is about a day’s journey by sea from the capital Port Blair.
The island group is India’s largest union territory and is centrally administered by the union government through a lieutenant governor, the highest-ranking official of the local administration. The islands are scattered across an 800km zone from north to south. The main island clusters of Andaman and Nicobar are separated by high seas and lie to the north of the Malacca Strait, a busy sea route through which one-third of the world’s sea trade passes. Over the years, the islands have emerged as a sought-after tourist destination as well as a strategic point in the Bay of Bengal for the defence forces and currently serves as the headquarters of India’s first tri-services command, which is headed by all the three services on a rotation basis. While the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) initiative began in 2011 to provide broadband connectivity to over 200,000 gram panchayats across all 26 states and union territories, it did not include the Andaman and Nicobar Islands due to technical challenges. Telecom providers in the islands, therefore, were left to rely on expensive satellite connectivity to provide 2Mbps speeds. The high cost meant digital connectivity remained out of reach for a large section of the population.
3G services provided by the state-run BSNL and by private operators worked only intermittently. Uploading a single file could take hours. “For years, it was simply impossible for local businesses in the islands to stay competitive due to the lack of proper connectivity,” said M. Vinod, president of the Andaman and Association of Tour Operators. “Right from managing flight and hotel bookings online to accepting payments digitally, everything was a big challenge,” he said, adding: “But we expect things to be markedly better in the coming months.”
Lt General A.K. Singh, former lieutenant governor of the islands who played a key role in getting the project sanctioned, agrees. “It is a defining moment, a game-changer in multiple fields—education, health, governance, e-initiatives. The feeling of isolation which prevailed among the people will reduce; business opportunities will enhance. The islands are well placed for establishing call centres & BPO industry. The people are multilingual and there are no labour issues. In anticipation of the undersea cable, we had started foreign language classes to prepare our people. The possibilities are immense,” he told Mint.
The idea of optic fibre connectivity to the islands was first introduced by the erstwhile Planning Commission in 2010, following which it constituted a technical committee for studying the existing available bandwidth, future requirement and the strategy to be adopted for providing adequate bandwidth through reliable connectivity to the islands.
The technical committee after conducting several rounds of discussion with stakeholders such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), the ministry of defence and the local administration submitted its report to the Commission in January 2011. In its report, it proposed provisioning submarine optical fibre connectivity to six major islands which include Port Blair, Havelock, Little Andaman, Car Nicobar, Kamorta and Campbell Bay and satellite connectivity for other islands.
As per the proposal, the six islands were to be connected through one of the existing consortium cables passing through the region to the Indian mainland. Based on the report of the technical committee, the Planning Commission, in April 2011, conveyed its in-principle approval for laying the undersea optical fibre cable to connect the six major islands. Soon after, the Andaman and Nicobar administration prepared a proposal and invited bids for implementation of the project including its operation and maintenance for 15 years on a turnkey basis. The financial bids of the project were first opened in March 2013, with an initial estimated project cost of ₹413.55 crore. However, the project went into cold storage soon after and was revived only in 2016 under the Modi government.
A strategic asset
In addition to improving digital connectivity to the islands, the project is expected to provide heft to India’s strategic ambitions in the Indian Ocean region, where China’s dominance has been on a steady rise.
Over the years, the Chinese have steadily increased their presence in neighbouring Myanmar. In 1992, China is believed to have established a SIGINT (signals intelligence) gathering station on Great Coco Island to monitor Indian naval activity and missile launches in the Bay of Bengal. In addition to that, the Chinese are believed to have constructed an airstrip in the islands for surveillance-related purposes.
“The Andaman Nicobar Islands are like an unsinkable aircraft carrier of India in a very strategic location in the Bay of Bengal, overlooking the sea lines of communication (SLOCS) and the Malacca Straits,” said Lt. General Singh. “Communication was a huge challenge even for our defence forces. The three-tier security around the islands will be greatly facilitated. The west coast of the islands, which is very sparsely inhabited, can now be continuously monitored using technology,” he added.
When conceived, it was also suggested that the undersea cable connectivity be extended from Kolkata to the Andamans, in addition to Chennai. The resulting ring-like structure will reduce downtime of the optic fibre cable significantly, which takes a relatively long time to repair and restore given the complexities involved. Additionally, Trai had also suggested that the connectivity from Kolkata may be used to route traffic from the entire North-Eastern region of the country directly to Chennai, bypassing the large fault-prone terrestrial part of the international connectivity from Kolkata to Chennai. Trai had further argued that the optimum fibre network may also be used to provide connectivity to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) nations such as Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Further, connectivity could be extended beyond Chennai to Sri Lanka and the Maldives via submarine cable. Experts say that the project, if extended by another 1000km eastward, will open up a host of opportunities for India in the Asean region and help counterbalance China. With this, experts feel that countries such as Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam too will eventually connect their respective digital highways with the project.
With digital connectivity already up significantly in several pockets in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands due to the cable, the transformative impact of the project has begun showing results.
The islanders say that dealing with rising covid-19 cases, which poses an extinction threat to the indigenous tribes of the island, will be relatively easier now. In the absence of proper connectivity, locals claim that the infections have been on a steady rise as people are forced to venture out for daily chores risking themselves and others. Alongside, students who have returned to their homes from the mainland continue to sit out of online classes in the absence of internet connectivity. But that may not be for long. With digital connectivity set to improve, it is the service sector which harbours the highest level of anticipation and hopes regarding newer job opportunities and new possibilities.
“When I arrived (in the islands) in July 2013, I witnessed first-hand the great challenges faced by the people there. Communication was one of them,” said Lt General Singh. “To see the project get complete is very satisfying,” he added. In the long-run, it may also turn out to be an important milestone in India’s long-standing Look East policy, an effort to cultivate extensive economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia in order to bolster its standing as a regional power.
Above all, the long-awaited project will create a sense of integration and confidence among the islanders, who are living in one of India’s remotest corners and who have until now been disadvantaged and deprived of their ‘right to internet access’–a fundamental right no less.