The need to strengthen India’s internet infrastructure

The Covid-19 lockdowns have brought about some irreversible changes, including the shift towards remote work, reduced reliance on commercial real estate, a decline in air travel, and changes in mass entertainment. In order to facilitate these transformations we need more accommodating internet regulations.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

There is no doubt that the enforced planetary lockdown in response to covid-19 will have a severe impact on the global economy. That said, a number of reports have, with cautious optimism, argued that as bad as the fall might be, the recovery will be swift. I am not an economist and I have little to contribute to that debate, but what is becoming increasingly clear to me is that no matter how quickly or how well we recover from this crisis, much of what we know, and are currently accustomed to, will change irreversibly.

One of my clients—a global company with over 10,000 employees in India—was extremely proud of the alacrity with which they had managed to get everyone set up to work from home, including traders and analysts who, until then, believed they had to be at their trading consoles in order to function. Across the globe, people are realizing that once you get past the never-ending days and the undifferentiated blur of household chores and Zoom calls, it is actually possible to work effectively from home, and that it might even be more productive if you consider the time saved on the commute.

The ease with which their businesses have adapted to the lockdown has lead many of my clients to rethink whether they really need to maintain their current levels of investment in commercial real estate. Nobody I know is seriously thinking of redesigning their business so that all employees work remotely from home all the time, but everyone is asking whether they really need all the office space they currently have. When this is all over, I expect a dramatic rationalization of working arrangements with much of the remote infrastructure that was temporarily erected to deal with the current crisis, being made permanent. This will inevitably lead to a re-evaluation of corporate expenditure on commercial real estate. As companies grant their employees greater flexibility to work from home, they will begin giving up the office buildings they no longer need.

Air travel, whether for business or pleasure, international or domestic, will likely be severely impacted for a long time. Even if we do find a vaccine for covid-19, it is not clear how effective it will be. What’s more, the fear that there could be many more viruses from where this originated will make people question whether being cooped up for long durations in a sealed metal cylinder with a hundred other—potentially infectious—people is really worth it. They will instead flock to video-conferencing platforms that allow face-to-face interaction without the need of social contact. As with commercial real estate, it is unlikely that we will give up air travel entirely. But even if we limit travel to only that which is absolutely necessary, it will have deep repercussions on an industry that is already operating with a high debt burden and thin margins.

This anxiety of being confined in close proximity with a large mass of people will spill over into many other aspects of our lives. Movie theatres, large, arena-style performance venues and sports stadiums may never again see the attendance numbers they used to. Over the course of the next 18 months or so, when social distancing measures are likely to be aggressively enforced, we will get used to experiencing mass entertainment differently. Platforms like Twitch that already stream video game tournaments to massive audiences will attract a wider and more diverse slate of performers , which will in turn attract new and diverse audiences. And when that happens, performing arts of all description will have to get accustomed to performing virtually.

We have managed to muddle through the current crisis by somehow cobbling together the equipment we need to keep our teams connected. But if this were to become permanent, we would need to shore up the infrastructure that people need to work effectively from home. For the most part, that will come down to making our internet regulations more accommodating.

Most Indian technology companies operate at least a part of their business as OSPs, or other service providers—a peculiar category of telecom registration that applies to information-technology-enabled businesses. One of the conditions of [[OSP Registration]] is that employees can only work from home if they have special permission. In the scramble to allow businesses flexibility to deal with the lockdown, the department of telecommunications relaxed these work-from-home regulations, allowing OSP employees to access the servers at work without prior approval on the condition that the static Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of employees availing this facility are duly reported. Given the number of employees working from home, telecom companies just don’t have enough static IPs to go around. This means that to get employees connected, companies are having to come up with hacks and work-arounds.

This should not be the case. Modern businesses ought to be able to operate seamlessly on the go—from office, home and everywhere in-between. We need to get rid of regulations that make this difficult to implement, and the OSP regulations should be the first to go.

I have long argued that the internet is essential infrastructure and this crisis has proved my point more effectively than ever before. If this is indeed the new normal, then we should do everything we can to ensure that the rails on which the internet runs work smoothly.