Bhaskar Pramanik, Chairman, Microsoft Corporation India, shares his views with Manish Pant on the Digital India programme and more.
How is Microsoft contributing to the Digital India initiative?
The government is planning to take the National Fibre Optic Network to 250,000 village panchayats. Overall there are 650,000 villages, the last-mile connectivity being the ultimate challenge. We have suggested the White-Fi technology, which basically uses the unused TV spectrum and enables various kinds of devices to be connected to the Internet. Although we have shown the proof of concept of this technology in different parts of India, we have no intentions of becoming a service provider. However, we are working with a large number of other organisations that want to use this technology. The federal government is evaluating many different technologies. We believe White-Fi to be the lowest cost access technology.
Tell us about your first Smart Village in Maharashtra.
We have a consortium of different companies. The technology component is the easiest because it is based upon our cloud infrastructure. It is based upon the White-Fi technology to provide connectivity. The infrastructure portion, which comprises cloud connectivity, is complete. We are working with a number of other companies in areas such as healthcare, education and skill-development, agricultural inputs and e-governance. Once the village gets connected, it is possible for other solutions to be deployed. For instance, we are working with Dayalbagh College (Agra), which is providing vocational skills for farm and agriculture-related opportunities. One of the things we have learnt is technology is perhaps the easiest thing, but the challenge is how do you provide services and solutions that the villagers can actually use. The other thing we have learnt is unless you can use technology to increase income levels of village residents, they won´t perceive technology as beneficial. What initially seemed to be a technology problem, which we resolved, is more of an anthropological challenge: i.e., how can technology eventually have a social and economic impact? Those goals are actually more long-term in nature as we now we need to get solutions deployed. We are working with several firms, including HP, towards that end.
Do you have plans to extend this concept of a Smart Village to other parts of India?
Yes. We will work on the learning that we will get from this small village of 1,750 people that has one of the lowest literacy rates, very high infant and maternal mortality, and is primarily agriculture-based. We need to figure what impact our technology has from the income, skill-development and healthcare perspectives. If that has an impact, theoretically, we can take the concept to more villages. Arinsal is perhaps one of the smallest villages in one of the most inaccessible regions of Maharashtra. If we can solve this, then I think we can do this for any other village. Our idea is to use this as a model that any state government can replicate.
Tell us about the Varanasi project.
That deployment happened really quickly. We have deployed White-Fi technology in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh and Arinsal in Maharashtra. Besides, we are also providing it to various IITs, who are conducting research on how it can interface with other technologies such as 2G, 3G and 4G.
What has been the key learning from that?
It takes much longer to get a licence to do a pilot project than what it actually takes to set it up. That´s the key learning. The most important learning is that the technology works. It´s easy to deploy, runs on solar power, doesn´t require too much maintenance and provides enormous connectivity.
What is the position on what you describe as the mega-power plants of tomorrow, your data centres?
This is what we call the digital era. If you think about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it´s all around data. Whether it´s the Internet of Things, analytics or cloud, it´s all about data. The Age of Electricity was all about big power plants. The equivalent of that in this era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are the data centres. Just like you used to have very high giga-watt power plants, data centres too are being built in different capacities and sizes. Companies with a global footprint have built very large data centres where you truly experience the hyper-scale computing ability that is infinite. These data centres can run any kind of workloads. It doesn´t matter what language the data is written in. It doesn´t matter what database you use. You can run it on anything. If you are an entrepreneur or company that has developed a certain stack, application or services, you can deploy them on these workloads. That´s why you require hyper-flexibility. These data centres are hyper-secure. Microsoft has invested over $15 billion in terms of both dark fibre as well as data centres in 192 countries globally. We have set up three such data centres in India with a huge capacity. Ever since we opened them last October, we have witnessed a number of regulated industries, state-owned enterprises and governments starting to use them.
How well is India placed to take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
If you look at the kind of work that large Indian system integrators are doing not just in India, but globally, it´s huge. There is a huge opportunity here and we will find domestic industry, including manufacturing, retail, financial services and governments, adopting those technologies very quickly. That will create a new generation of different kind of solutions for which the talent, capability and solutions exist in India. It will then be all about how the rest of the industry adopts them.
Do you have plans to for more centres in the near future?
No, as presently, we are only utilising one-fourth of the installed capacity that we have invested in.
What will make Digital India successful?
The government is very clearly focused on the citizen. Therefore, among the various programmes under Digital India, one is around infrastructure. Here, cloud data centres will play an important role. The White-Fi technology too is part of infrastructure as it provides last-mile technology. Then, there are all these e-governance solutions. A lot of them in the past have been built on Microsoft-based solutions. They are also built on open source. All of those can easily be moved on to the cloud. The government wants security to be provided. Those are the areas in which we are contributing by aligning ourselves with the government. Our target audience includes developers and independent software vendors who will create these solutions. Our target are these SMEs, besides the large enterprises. It is focused on what the government is trying to do in terms of e-governance to provide services to citizens.
As the country moves towards the digital age, how critical will be the safety and security of data?
That is one of the biggest challenges as this requires global involvement. Our belief as a company is that data must be subject to the laws of the country in which it resides. We also believe it is the right of every citizen to have ownership of their proprietary data and be confident about its security. Those are the two fundamental principles that we use as a basis of trust, transparency and technology to provide that level of security. For a government, it is always about striking a balance between privacy of data and national security. We believe it is the local governments who have the capability to manage that. And we would like governments globally to agree to a certain set of standards and we will try to facilitate that in the country we are operating in.