Telecom Day And Digital Divide

Updated: May 31 2002, 05:30am hrs
May 17 is celebrated as Telecom Day. International Telecommunications Union, the global body in telecom, had assigned the theme `How Information and Telecom Technologies or ICT can help bridge the digital divide as the topic for deliberations. A number of seminars, including the upcoming Baramati conference next week , are addressing this issue.

Division among societies into haves and have-nots plague every society. Such division may be for basic necessity such as food, clothing, shelter, drinking water and healthcare. As the technologies for harnessing resources abound, access to such technologies translate to a division in the society. Widespread access to electricity another enabling technology has become an indicator of the societal needs of any nation. So is the case with telecom and information technology. Lack of access leads to divide.

Access to ICT, in the form of PC density, tele-density, and internet density (based on the number of devices per unit population) is a good measure of digital divide. While counties like US talk of 90 per cent reach of telephones, 50 per cent reach of PC and 30 per cent reach of internet across the population, countries like India have to contend with a tele-density of about 1 per cent, PC density of 0.8 per cent, and internet density of 0.4 per cent. Naturally such low density leads to digital divide a sort of haves and have-nots in terms of digital goods, similar to haves and have-nots of economic goods.

India has attained notable success in software industry. Significant, (though small in absolute terms), wealth generation has been made possible, thanks to pioneering efforts by companies like Infosys and Wipro. Today, India exports software worth $ 6 billion per year a no mean achievement. In this field of ICT, India in general, and Indians in particular are accepted the world over as leaders an attribute not easily shared by post-Independent India over the past fifty years in many other fields of activity. Naturally, there is excitement all around. The average Indian sees a ray of hope in IT as a way to overcome poverty and other miseries of life that plague Indian society today. While it is not always possible to use ICT to overcome poverty, a number of instances are there where ICT deployment has made a difference to an average Indian.

The village telephone was pioneered by Sam Pitroda through a system of low cost telecom exchanges designed for rural India. The widespread access to phones through Subscriber Trunk Dialling - Public Call Office improved access considerably. The exploitation of off peak time network capacity and price elasticity brought down the costs of telephony. These three together led to a revolution of sorts during the eighties.

The Indian railway reservation system over the years had made train journey with some assured comforts a reality for millions of Indians, day after day.

A number of innovations, particularly in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamilnadu have made some of the government services processes like vehicle registration, drivers license, property registration as well as information like land records, caste certificates and mark sheets available at affordable costs to the average citizen. Earlier it was available to those with connection or at a price fixed by rent seeking government officials. Easy availability of information, thanks to pioneering examples such as the Dhar project, Gyandoot project, Honeybee Network in states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have provided information transparency which has far reaching implications for an information-starved economy like India.

Buoyed by the success of such experiments, there are a number of experiments to make the government accountable to the people and its processes more transparent. The SMART Government project in the state of Andhra Pradesh, Mukhya Vahini Project in Karnataka and FRIENDS project in Kerala are attempts in this direction.

Ultimately every divide telecom divide, electricity divide, internet divide or the more general digital divide is a manifestation of the economic divide. Naturally, the real solution is to address this core issue. As long as enough wealth is generated (through ICT and other means) and distributed and enough productive jobs generated in the society, the digital divide will be minimised.

Professor S Sadagopan is the Director of the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore. The views expressed here are personal. He can be contacted at ss@iiitb.ac.in