Digital Connectivity Between India and the European Union: The Way Ahead

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
Credit: Ursula von der Leyen / Twitter

Digital connectivity can be defined as the utility of communication infrastructure and prevalent and new technologies for the purpose of forging a well-connected digital economy, stapled by regulation, governance, and legal oversight. Hence, it is fast emerging as a key facet of strategic cooperation between even distant entities such as the Republic of India and the European Union. In the present-day hugely interconnected and interdependent world, digital connectivity continues to gain immense ground and impact our day-to-day activities, more so in the ongoing Covid pandemic.

Provisions for Digital Connectivity in the India-EU Strategic Partnership

On May 8, 2021, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) announced the India-EU Connectivity Partnership which covered a broad range of areas. Of these, digital connectivity has been considered to be of immense value and extrapolates the Strategic Partnership between India and the EU to more exhaustive mantle and support a long term healthy relationship. It also accords an indication of how serious India and the EU are as far as national and inter-national digitalism are concerned.

While the spread and adoption of fifth-generation (5G) telecommunication technologies is well known, a strong focus on cross-seas connectivity through submarine cables as well as satellite communication will continue. Security standards have been accorded deserved attention while investments in areas such as 5G have been welcomed through a proposed Digital Investments Forum. While such solutions are to be implemented, the two parties must assess a large number of challenges which disable progress in digital communication. Increasingly, from the purview of a unit company, the digital medium is being hampered by forces inimical to the cause of mass upliftment through stable and evolving digital health.

This Article assesses some of the challenges in the realm of digital connectivity and attempts to proffer solutions of a wider bandwidth in regard to the Strategic Partnership between India and the European Union. The Connectivity Partnership is considered to be a welcome measure that lists the fundamental facets of digital relations between India and the EU.

Challenges to Digital Connectivity between India and the European Union

There are several challenges that India and the EU face:

  1. The foremost challenge in the India-EU Digital Connectivity Partnership is concerns over India’s adoption of new technologies at a rapid pace. If India, in a practical capacity, were to uniformly adopt 5G, then the EU stands to gain from digital connectivity between the two strategic partners. While 24 of the EU’s 27 member-states have implemented 5G technologies in some form or the other, implementation in India remains a work in progress. However, India is as committed to new and emerging technologies as the EU is. The EU will require to invest over $355 billion in India’s 5G infrastructure, while India itself has been pegged to invest $70 billion within its digital arena. This in itself poses a critical challenge owing to the state of debt-ridden finances in the EU and India courtesy the detrimental impact of the novel Coronavirus, which, unfortunately, continues to rage.
  2. The EU will have to address its own internal challenges which are mainly related to technology sharing. It may be possible that, as an independent union of like-minded states, the EU will be compelled to look inwards as far as digital technology transfer is concerned. The EU will thus have to debate internally as to how it can tackle this appropriately.
  3. Digital know-how for an end user in both India and the European Union is of vital concern. Therefore, technology education, systemic training, and digital awareness are three factors that merit significance attention. India’s rapidly expanding internet user base can work with the EU’s speedy adoption of fifth-generation technologies to bring about a common digital revolution. Further, the digital medium is now linked to many aspects like transport and people-to-people relations, and this makes a stronger case for digital intellectualism.
  4. The internet, having evolved over the years, is a key element of the Connectivity Partnership. All communication involves the internet in some form or the other. India and the EU have made no attempts to localize the internet to suit them better, while the promotion of an internet that belongs to the world as a whole is also desired.

Addressing Challenges to Digital Connectivity Between India and the European Union – A Way Ahead

  1. Digital connectivity will have to be critically prioritized between the two partners. Given that there is an ever-increasing demand for goods and services in the digital domain, investing wisely in connectivity infrastructure, ensuring all-out cyber security, setting standards and guidelines for optimal utilization of digital resources, and allowing for foreign private players to gain critical stakes is a crucial aspect. The Strategic Partnership must figure digital connectivity as a theme on par with cooperation in matters such as mutual defence and trade. The EU’s liberal internal technology transfer regime can help guide EU-India digital cooperation to ensure a smooth and facilitated process.
  2. Challenges such as geographical distance will have to be addressed with a firm commitment. In this regard, India and the EU will have to utilize the Connectivity Partnership to ensure that timely association takes place on topics such as 5G. Routine interactions will have to accompany a step-by-step furtherance of India’s digital ambitions, and be made part of the Prime Minister’s Digital India revolution. The entire process of digital transformation in India will have to be carefully balanced on an amicable level with the European Union.
  3. A Digital Issue Resolution Forum (DISF) can be organized for the purpose of resolving problems areas/ issues. There already exists many challenges in this domain, hence the DISF should be exclusive to India and the EU. The DISF will be distinct and different from the proposed Digital Investments Forum. Expert opinions can be solicited towards problem-solving while issue-based discussions featuring relevant and involved Track-1 and Track-1.5 officials could also be held.
  4. Digital discipline will have to be endorsed at all levels. Ranging from governments to businesses, and the many end users, digitalism will have to be organized and monitored on a 24×7 basis. Digital discipline could also entail the free and fair use of digital technologies for all segments of society across Europe and India. Transparency in the state of digital affairs, one that leans towards accountability and responsibility will have to be maintained. All of the above will ensure sustainable digital connectivity, which is the main objective of the Connectivity Partnership. Digital discipline will range from fundamental user awareness to secure digital trade.
  5. While the Connectivity Partnership considers investments in areas such as metro rail services and climate action as a digital imperative, focussed investments in the digital sector are as much desired. Ancillary investments may not impact the overall digital economy as strongly as direct investments in the digital connectivity domain (especially between India and the EU, not so much within India or the EU). For this, the EU technology transfer regime for corporates can be adopted by the two partners to ensure seamless digital technology exchange and easier adoption.
  6. Going ahead, just digital connectivity (limited to telecom networks) may not serve the larger purpose of what is called new-age “intelligent connectivity”, which is defined as the smart fusion of 5G with allied technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet-of-Things (IoT). The seamless integration of all of these technologies will force disruption to enable creativity and innovation, leading to a stable and prosperous digital future. India and the EU could lead the way in this area.
  7. An important aspect of digital connectivity, as defined in the Connectivity Partnership, is all to do with submarine cable infrastructure and communication satellite deployments. While these are being pursued rigorously, they remain under threat since both the maritime and outer space arenas are facing security threats. Thus, digital connectivity could be strongly impacted were there to be a credible threat to national security.

It is apparent, that the Strategic Partnership between India and the European Union finds itself lacking as far as furthering digital connectivity is concerned. In this regard, the Connectivity Partnership, is a welcome development. It highlights the key points through which both players can find themselves better connected and strategically integrated across Europe and the Indo-Pacific region. Moreover, like the Strategic Partnership, it remains flexible and newer challenges will continue to be addressed via this mechanism.

However, it does not cater to the wide array of considerations in the realm of digital connectivity. It is worth arguing that a mere expansion of digital technologies across the board will not bring about much-needed technological change and evolution. A number of related subjects such as mutually-beneficial investments, hard and soft cyber security, cooperation over vast distances, and digital optimization will have to be given as much importance as the main digital ecosystem itself.

The Connectivity Partnership will have to be reinforced over time with new features that cater to the rapidity of developments in the digital domain, such as AI, IoT, and Robotics. Retention of the status-quo, which has much to do with continued profuse digital adoption and inclusion of new technologies, could be as damaging as it appears to be fruitful. The Connectivity Partnership should be more than a statement of initiations and should encompass all that is suggested above. The EU and India stand to benefit immensely, and critically, were there to be a holistic partnership in place between the two as opposed to a nominal one.

The views and opinions expressed in the Article are those of the Author.