Team Speak

The great Digital Divide – story of the haves and the have nots


India has the second highest number of Internet users and yet there exists a stark divide between Urban India and Rural India in terms of Internet connectivity. The Internet is so pervasive nowadays that it’s hard for us to imagine our lives without it, yet almost 60% of India’s population is completely shut out of it. While the current government has launched many schemes geared towards the ‘Digital India’ dream, over 70 per cent of rural India still do not have access to the internet. People living in Urban centers are so accustomed to this new lifestyle of working from home, streaming movies on their favorite OTTs, kids swimming through e-learning classes – that we forget about the vast population out there with no (maybe minimal) digital access.

Current Situation Analysis

Government has initiated several policy measures, to improve the state of rural internet connectivity. The total number of internet subscribers is ~750 million, which is about 55% of our population. India’s share in the world population is about 16-17%, yet it constitutes only about 10% of the world’s internet population!

Furthermore, if only fixed-line broadband connections are considered, the penetration is far lower when compared to other countries. Add to this is the dismal internet penetration in rural areas. The national average in terms of the number of connections is 106 per 100 inhabitants in urban areas compared to merely 30 per 100 inhabitants in rural areas. Long story short, the digital divide in urban and rural India is too wide to be ignored.

Just to put this in perspective – this is not an India specific problem and exists in across leading global economies, as well. There are multiple reasons for the problem to persist – lack of infrastructure available in rural areas, combined with lower population density, lower revenue potential, large distances from urban centers and the consequent lack of viable business cases.

But why the dichotomy – on the one hand we know that India has one of the lowest data prices anywhere in the world, prevalence of cheap mobile phones – but wait how can we say that a profitable business case does not exist, after all we’ve seen a steady increase in users and usage of the Internet! Economics is the larger issue that we need to address; because if a profitable model had existed, I am sure investment would have followed the returns. But due to the lack of a viable economic model, the required investments are never available.

Key Stakeholders

The digital divide concerns governments, the private sector, multilateral organizations, financial institutions, non-governmental organizations, and any citizen, for that matter. Everyone needs to come together, as only together we have the power to close the digital divide, by forming a common framework designed to foster the growth of information communications technologies, worldwide. Private sector participation in the area is especially critical as it brings in the hope of efficient, market-led solutions that meet social as well as economic policy objectives.

Without Private sector participation it’s difficult to solve this problem and hitherto the small and large private entities have shied away from investing in this area, because of various government bodies that they need to collaborate with.

Policy changes need to be made to encourage private sector participation in services like e-medicine, online education, e-health and e-entertainment so as to create local employment opportunities and drive socio-economic growth in rural areas. Their participation would ensure the cost-effective and large-scale distribution of infrastructure programmes, using information and communication technology.

The possible impact

In the last couple of decades, the Internet has transformed from being just another means of communication to sheer power. Digital Access provides availability of a whole lot of information. It enables training, education, close business transactions, perform tasks which otherwise required a lot of travel, so on and so forth.

As per a recent World Bank report, a 10% increase in internet penetration levels in developing countries can lead to GDP growth of 1.38 percentage points. In a country like India, where majority of the population still lives in rural areas, for inclusive growth to occur, it’s important to establish adequate infrastructure that supports rural connectivity. However, in India where a larger section of the population is still deprived of basic amenities like uninterrupted access to clean running water, hygienic sanitation facilities, access to electricity, healthcare and banks, and education is still a luxury, providing stable broadband connectivity is an uphill task.

What will influence success

The pandemic offered us both a lesson and an opportunity, to strengthen rural connectivity in India. The second wave was more severe than the first, necessitating more lockdowns. With schools and colleges shut, classes continued online. Digital payments and transactions continue to stay critical as mobility stays restricted. We basically need solutions that enhance digital and financial literacy, develops content in regional and local languages, and allows stakeholders to participate in these processes. The challenge is to make it both cost-effective as well as affordable. A renewed focus on rural internet connectivity is essential for achieving the goals of a “future digital India”.

India is a diverse country and there can’t be just one model for success for solving rural connectivity issues, so there will probably be different models that work in different states and models that coexist in the same region, depending on the support from government, participation of the private sector and initiative from local entrepreneurs. What will make success possible, are factors such as cost effectiveness of technology, innovative business models, provision of value-added services, commitment from the government and entrepreneurial orientation.

The connectivity divide in Urban India and Rural India is too wide to be ignored. The time is now for all stakeholders – Government, Telecom & Infrastructure companies, Internet enablers and local entrepreneurs – all come together to bridge the digital divide and take our country towards the new age of Information revolution!

“If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin” – Charles Darwin

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