Reorient policy to achieve ‘universally affordable and top quality broadband’
In 2015, all 193 UN member states affirmed their commitment to the SDG by 2030. From data collection to analysis, and global cooperation to effective action, the role of ICT is crucial in achieving these 17 goals, as seen in our fight against Covid-19. We need institutional and policy framework to deliver universal, affordable and quality broadband services, while also enabling individuals to afford, access and use the devices and services.
According to the ICT Price Trends 2019 by the ITU, benchmarking 192 countries, India was one of 33 countries where high-consumption mobile data and voice package can be purchased for less than 1% of per capita income. It is notable given that, in 2019, the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development set out the target of 2% by 2022.
A cause for celebration? Yes, and no
For a developing country like India with huge infrastructure gap and limited state capacity, progress in telecom over 25 years has been nothing short of stupendous. Reduction in tariffs, network expansion, availability of low-cost devices and a spurt in audio-visual content led to exponential growth of mobile subscriptions to 1.2 billion, with unique subscribers of 700 million. Ironically, despite being ranked 130 out of 140 nations in terms of mobile data speed (at 11GB per month on average), an Indian broadband customer consumes more data than anybody else globally, thanks to the world’s lowest data tariff of just Rs 3.5 ($0.05) per GB.
Contrary to general belief, India ranks between 25 and 85 within the ITU report across five price baskets: High-consumption mobile data and voice; Low-consumption mobile data and voice; Mobile voice basket; Mobile data; and, Fixed-broadband. Even the Alliance for Affordable Internet had put India at the ninth rank in its 2019 report.
Digital divide persists
Recently, India presented a strong case at the WTO to invest in digital infrastructure and digital skills in developing and least developed countries to bridge the digital divide between them and developed countries. But, within India, there are fault-lines. According to TRAI, at the end of 2019, urban teledensity was 156% while the rural one was trailing at 56%.
The GSMA’s The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019 shows that only 59% of adult women in India owned a mobile phone, as against 80% of adult men, representing a 26% gender gap. Women account for just 35% of all internet users in the country and just 31% in rural areas, and the gap is more than double at 56% in mobile internet usage.
For 300 million Indians living below poverty line who are not sure of securing two square meals a day, even a monthly usage charge of Rs 200 ($3) is too high, not to mention the device cost. The Rs 149 per month 39 GB/month plan is a good bargain for power users. However, as economists point out, it is a poor option for low-consumption users as they end up paying more per GB. A better option for such users is sachet pricing of recharge where they pay for what they consume.
A bridge too far? Not really
‘Affordable’ services have been the refrain in national policies all along right from the National Telecom Policy in 1994 to the National Broadband Mission in 2018. However, none of these, including several in between, prescribed time-bound tangible targets around affordability per se.
It’s time to reorient the policy framework to realise the vision of ‘universally affordable and quality broadband’ by committing to time-bound targets for both affordable tariffs and percentage of internet connected population at the bottom of pyramid. The USOF has been providing subsidy for infrastructure to telecom operators for expanding access in rural and remote areas.
While this is a standard method in many countries, a variant of this is needed in India. The USOF should provide end-user subsidy both for the device and service, leveraging Aadhaar and the DBT platform, much like the MGNREGA.
This can be done through telcos’ mobile recharge top-up mechanisms and the MNP would offer the requisite flexibility to the users. For example, it can provide reprieve to the millions returning to their native villages during the lockdown. But this need not be limited to them and must be extended to all those deprived of the broadband.
Maheshwari is a public policy consultant; Sridhar is a professor at IIIT Bangalore. Views are personal