Without Internet Access, There is no ‘Digital India’

By Tushar Madan —

Satellite Dishes for broadband Internet and television in India. Source: AJ PhotographicArt’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India initiative is dramatically expanding citizens’ access to information and has put more government services online — increasing transparency and accountability. However, a significant portion of the population lacks Internet access and cannot use these tools. The private sector has developed multiple technologies that could dramatically expand Internet access in the coming years, yet none of them has broken through in India. India’s government should ensure it is not artificially limiting the commercial viability of these new technologies through its protectionism.

India, with a population over 1.2 billion people, has less than 400 million Internet subscribers. India’s Communications ministry predicts this number will rise to 730 million by 2020. Even if India meets this ambitious projection, however, over 500 million Indians would remain offline. These half a billion citizens, likely less empowered and connected than others, are the most in need of the innovative solutions the web can provide.

The centerpiece of government plans for boosting access is Modi’s Digital India plan, which involves building a national optical fiber network, Bharatnet, that will bring broadband connectivity to about 250,000 village council districts throughout the country. But the government’s plans will largely improve the quality of access for those who are already connected to the internet. In fact, only 6 out of the 73 Digital India initiatives explicitly aim to expand access to those who are not online.

Public and private sector solutions to the problem of internet access in India have encountered significant impediments. Though barriers to a fully Digital India are plentiful, including forces like gender inequality, the main limitations are regulatory, financial, and geographic. Regulatory obstacles include the Indian government’s control of broadband spectrum pricing: above-market valuation of spectrum prices has led to more than half of the spectrum offered in the government’s most recent auction going unsold. The cost of spectrum in India is one of the highest in the world; unsurprisingly, India ranks low on spectrum availability per-capita. Another regulatory limitation is the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) strict control over the satellites that can be used to provide broadband internet. A past attempt by private industry was controversially terminated by the Indian government in 2011, and no private company has attempted this since. Internal bureaucratic obstacles apply to other departments of the Indian government as well; the Department of Transportation and the Telecom Ministry have both fought, but failed, to use ISRO satellites for broadband services.

Pricing of smartphones limits India’s access to the internet; the average price of a smartphone in India is $158, quite expensive for the average Indian man, whose median gross hourly salary is under $5 (Indian women earn even less). Paying for data is an additional burden. This financial obstacle is likely a major reason that the majority of Indians using a mobile phone own a feature phone and only 15 percent plan to switch to a smartphone in the near future. Another major barrier to accessing the internet in many developing countries, including India, is due to geography. Often, mobile internet access does not exist in remote or rural areas, with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India indicating that rural India has under 14 internet subscriptions per 100 people. As of 2016, only 9 percent of India’s rural areas had any access to internet technology. Additionally, India’s diversity means that linguistic differences add to the obstacles to full internet inclusiveness.

Despite these limitations, private and public innovations are still attempting to bridge the gap in India’s digital divide. Potentially indicating a shift in some regulatory issues, ISRO has recently announced a partnership with a group of private companies to manufacture two full communication satellites. Though this is an early agreement, it indicates that the government may be open to working with private industries to overcome regulatory hurdles. The private sector, for its part, is already driving growth in mobile internet access. Competition is generally reducing smartphone and internet prices, but private sector players are also innovating to increase digital accessibility. Reliance Jio, for example, offers an inexpensive smartphone and free Wi-Fi hotspot services in major Indian cities. Google India, partnering with the Railway Ministry, now provides 120 railway stations with free internet, helping 15,000 people a day use the internet for the first time. Even Facebook, despite previously facing regulatory issues, has launched its “Express Wifi” program in India. Innovative startups, like WifiDabba are providing internet at affordable rates at easily accessible local bazaars and tea-houses.

Private companies are also overcoming geographic barriers to access, albeit slightly more slowly. Facebook continues to develop more ways to overcome geographic barriers to internet accessibility in developing nations, including the usage of drones, building a large cluster of antennas to create larger zones of coverage called Project Aries, and a wireless system, known as Terragraph, that attaches internet distribution nodes to existing city infrastructure. Google’s Project Loon aspires to use high-altitude balloons as an internet dispersal system in developing countries and IBM in India can now send offline critical alerts to people in remote areas using a mesh network. Startups, like ‘Project Gram Marg Solution for Rural Broadband’, are also working to connect villages in even the most difficult to access terrains.

Digital India relies on the educational, efficiency, and connectivity benefits that access to the internet can bring, but does not focus on bringing India online. Innovative public and private solutions to digitizing India are working to overcome limitations. The government of India must ensure there is fair competition among platforms, allowing commercial interests to bridge India’s digital divide — the success of Digital India depends on it.

Mr. Tushar Madan is a researcher with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.

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