In Depth India's Cabinet Secretariat

Published on June 16th, 2015 | by


What India Gets Right, And Wrong, About the Internet of Things

While the private sector does a fine job of developing individual connected technologies to support smarter homes, cities, and infrastructure, these advancements are necessarily piecemeal and fragmented. This is the problem that India’s new roadmap for the Internet of Things aims to address. In what amounts to the world’s first national strategy for the Internet of Things, the roadmap outlines the framework for a comprehensive, systematic approach to support digitization efforts in India, particularly the recently approved plan to build 100 smart cities across the country. To its credit, the roadmap details several important recommendations that would serve to accelerate adoption of connected technologies including increasing the spectrum available to connected devices, creating interoperable standards, and using a light-touch regulatory approach. However, several counterproductive “India first” policies in the roadmap would restrict access to foreign products and require that the servers used with connected devices be located within India’s borders. It is good to see India break ground on a national strategy to help usher in a more connected world, but if India goes forward with such protectionist policies, this roadmap would fail to fully achieve its goal of capitalizing on the economic and socials benefits of the Internet of Things.

India’s roadmap rightly identifies interoperability issues as one of the foremost challenges in widespread adoption of connected technologies. The roadmap offers several solutions to making it easier for networks and connected devices to work with one another. For example, based on industry feedback calling for interoperability guidelines, India’s Telecommunication Engineering Center, a standards-setting organization, will consider product certifications designed to encourage device interoperability. As long as India conforms to international standards, this should make it easier for device manufacturers to ensure that their products are useable in as many markets as possible. Additionally, the roadmap calls for all smart city services, such as transportation and waste management, to be use the Internet Protocol (IP), rather than  proprietary standards, to ensure ease of upgrade in the future. The roadmap also identifies the need to ensure that wireless spectrum is available for the increasing amount of devices in the Internet of Things, though at this point the roadmap only commits to exploring the issue further and allocating some licensed spectrum bands for experimentation purposes on a limited basis.

A large portion of the roadmap is devoted to growing the market for connected devices and fostering innovation within India. The government will create a fund for venture capital activities and will establish incubators that focus on supporting innovation, research and development, and capacity building for the Internet of Things. The government’s Technology Engineering Center will establish numerous test bed facilities designed to hasten the product testing and certification process. To simultaneously develop human capacity alongside the technical, the National Telecom Institute for Policy Research, Innovation, and Training, a government training institute, will develop content specifically for the Internet of Things. Additionally, the government will conduct 15 smart grid pilot programs across the country as proof of concept applications of the Internet of Things. Finally, the roadmap directs the Center of Innovation, conceived as part of India’s 2012 National Telecom Policy to support IPv6 technologies, to coordinate government and regulator activities, foster international collaboration for various policies and standards, and support both technical research and development and knowledge resource development.

Unfortunately, India’s focus on developing capacity within its borders goes too far by focusing on supporting domestic innovation at the expense of innovation as a whole. Under the guise of encouraging interoperability, India plans to require import licenses for short distance and low power transmitting devices, which could potentially allow the Indian government to charge foreign companies extortive fees to access Indian markets, or block them entry altogether. The roadmap also indicates certain connected devices, such as Global Positioning System (GPS) devices and personal health devices, could be included in India’s Preferential Market Access (PMA) policy—a government procurement framework designed explicitly to favor domestically produced information technology products and support national security concerns. While it is understandable that India’s government wants to support Indian companies, the PMA policy is more likely to have an adverse effect on India’s—and the world’s—economy by creating artificial preferences for potentially higher cost and lower quality goods, distorting global trade, and reducing, rather than increasing, ICT security. By limiting access to the best and cheapest Internet of Things technologies, the PMA policy would serve to discourage adoption of these technologies and thus limit their potential beneficial impact.

Additionally, all gateways and applications servers involved in machine-to-machine communications that service customers in India must also be located in India. This mandate is intended to protect national security, yet the notion that data must be stored locally to be secure is patently false. Several governments around the world have established similar data localization requirements to ensure that data-related jobs stay within their borders, and given India’s protectionist move to include the Internet of Things in the PMA policy, this is likely the real motive. Limiting the flow of data from the Internet of Things across borders blocks industry access to the most economical and effective means of storing, analyzing, and innovating with data—counterproductive to India’s goal of securing the economic and social benefits that this data could provide.

India’s roadmap rightly acknowledges the potential benefits of a forward-looking, unified approach to the Internet of Things that encourages a robust marketplace for connected devices, and even claims to try to align its strategy with best practices from around the world. And yet, this roadmap includes several provisions that that both the international community and domestic groups alike have criticized as harmful to this market. If India truly wants to emerge as a leader in the Internet of Things, its strategy should support policies that drive adoption and encourage new and innovative applications of connected technologies, rather than view the developing Internet of Things market as something to exploit for the chance of short-term economic gain.

Image: flickr user Laurie Jones.

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