Photo by — @martinjernberg

The Indian Supercloud

Lockdown is giving rise to questions of digital infrastructure in India

There is talk of an Indian supercloud amidst the biggest lockdown in the world. With the people of India at home how can digital infrastructure be built to support this and what issues are involved beyond connectivity?

During the last few weeks digital infrastructure has seen many challenges, particularly with the increased pressure from the activity of users in some cases (such as for Facebook) is increasing. One example was displayed in Vox Recode, they wrote an insightful article on how the Internet is likely going to be fine, yet that there is a noticeable increase in traffic.

There is supposedly a capacity to handle this, yet the same does not go for all countries — or there is a beginning practice of limiting use either by private companies or governments.

Both YouTube and Netflix have been limiting streaming quality. Thus reducing the size of the overall data on their platforms for a limited time, perhaps also to handle the expected increase.

Countries are now eager to address the questions surrounding these limitations and one of them is India.

In New Delhi this week there was a ban on high-speed Internet.

“The Indian government will not restore the high-speed internet despite the pressing need for the population to stay informed about the coronavirus pandemic.” — Foreign Policy, the 13th of April.

There are policy-makers eager to address this.

There was an article written on the 14th of April by Jayant Sinha, the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance in Parliament and a Lok Sabha MP from Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. He talks of a “SuperCloud” taking shapeabove coronavirus-hit India.

“The coronavirus pandemic is shaping a veritable SuperCloud — floating above India, servicing our needs, our relationships, our dreams. Cooped up at home because of the nationwide lockdown, we are still working diligently, transacting via shopping and banking apps, participating in webinars and conferences, streaming movies and TV shows that are served up magically, and chatting with loved ones for hours over video calls.”

According to Jayant Sinha many problems can be fixed with this approach — much of India’s physical friction: “…congested roads, erratic power supply, overloaded transportation system, sparse banking networks…” if people just conducted their lives digitally.

Yet all digital is physical somewhere so this argument holds some limited power, although in a metaphysical sense it is alluring to think of this cloud.

The SuperCloud is a powerful image.

To be frank and fair Jayant Sinha is addressing an important issue, because the Indian government do want people to stay home while conducting their needs as much as possible.

He mentions that US and China already has digital infrastructure that can support an array of customised services.

However the Indian SuperCloud may be different, and possibly more oriented towards smartphones. Jayant Sinha states that:

“95 per cent of activities conducted on six-inch screens. Soon, we will be accessing our SuperCloud through a nationwide, blindingly fast 5G network. Vast data centres will be humming away across India. Our start-ups will use artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) to customise services that cater to our specific needs.

A few facts that he lists:

  • Smartphone penetration in India is rising rapidly and is expected to reach over 850 million by 2022.
  • Internet users in India already exceed over 600 million, with the vast majority accessing it through their mobile devices.
  • With the lowest 4G prices in the world, Indian users are using more total data on the mobile Internet than users anywhere else.

What he stresses most of all is perhaps the coverage and speed with the possibilities they hold.

India working to expand its data centre policy framework.

It is also expected to be one of the most rapidly growing and is expected to reach $4,5 billion in 2020.

In a move for sovereignty and security India has decided to locate its financial data in India:

“The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has now clarified that all financial data should be stored in the country, though it can be processed outside the country. This is driving the rapid growth of data centres across India.”

This is said to be better for users as well.

There is ongoing work as well to work towards privacy as a fundamental right.

“The Supreme Court of India has ensured that privacy is a fundamental right. To that end, the Personal Data Protection Bill was introduced in Parliament in December 2019 to ensure that digital services are appropriately regulated and that our digital lives are provided the same level of privacy as our physical lives. The Bill has now been sent to a joint parliamentary committee where it will go through detailed parliamentary scrutiny.

In addition to this there is work on getting the health of all Indians onto one platform, although this is apparently only at a discussion stage. Work has begun on a health record standard.

With a digital layer augmenting our limited physical assets, we will be able to sweat our assets better and get more bang from our investment buck.

He ends with an encouragement to go forward and to make it happen:

“Now is the time to build our SuperCloud and make it into a powerful force multiplier for India and its economic growth.”

One has to respect Jayant Sinha perspectives, yet at the same time it is important to consider how this will play out in practice.

Internet Shutdowns

It must be mentioned that there has been a variety of shutdowns of Internet in India prior to the Coronavirus.

The government does not need any prior judicial approval to shut down the Internet anywhere in the country.

As per Internet Shutdown Tracker report they had the highest amount of Internet shutdown in the world in 2019.

“Authorities usually order internet providers to suspend services, citing public order reasons. Under Indian laws, the government can direct telecom companies to shut down services or take down sites, among other things.” BBC, the 19th of December 2019.

As such the digital infrastructures in India is highly political and used strategically when needed.

How super will this SuperCloud be if that still will remain the case?

This is #500daysofAI and you are reading article 319. I am writing one new article about or related to artificial intelligence every day for 500 days. My focus for day 300–400 is about AI, hardware and the climate crisis.

AI Policy and Ethics at www.nora.ai. Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own. twitter.com/AlexMoltzau