How inclusive is Indian digitalisation?

The rapid rollout of 5G is laudable; however, it will end up exacerbating the already-widening digital divide within the country in the short-term.

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While 3% of the rural population owned a computer before the pandemic, the number has dropped to just 1% after it.

With 5G rolling out rapidly, there is massive euphoria about the pace of digitalisation in India and the fact that we have the highest data usage per subscriber. We have grown over fifteen-fold in data usage per subscriber per month from 2016 to 2022. However, one is also hearing persistent voices of doubt that make us pause and reflect.

Per Oxfam India’s Report in December, there is an increasing divide visible in the digital space in the country. While 61% of men owned mobile phones in 2021, in the case of women, it was just 31%. It is also disturbing to note that digital technologies appear to remain the preserve of the urban, upper-caste, and upper-class individuals. While 3% of the rural population owned a computer before the pandemic, the number has dropped to just 1% after it. The digital divide is reflected more sharply in the areas of education and healthcare—82% of parents face difficulties in ensuring their children access to digital education, with signal and internet speed becoming the biggest issues in school. Meanwhile, 84% of government school teachers also face challenges for delivery through digital medium due to lack of devices and internet. 

Per World Economic Forum, digital inequality is one of the largest risks for India in the short and medium term. Further, in the present environment of higher smartphone prices and sharply rising data charges, internet penetration has flattened, and this poses significant challenges for achieving digital inclusivity. It is great that 5G is being rolled out aggressively; however, it must be realised, as pointed out by International Telecommunications Union, that an inescapable fall-out of this would be a worsening digital divide in the first few years. 

Both Nokia and Ericsson have reported a steep increase in mobile data traffic in India in the last five years—they report data usage of over 19 GB per subscriber per month in 2022. However, TRAI’s industry value remains around 16 GB per user per month. This is understandable because BSNL doesn’t have 4G and Vi has been having major challenges in the marketplace. Airtel and Jio have nearly 70% of the market (in fact, probably 80% of the mobile broadband). This means that the high data value of 19 GB in a major portion of the market is being sharply pulled down to 16 GB by a minor segment of possibly by around 20-30% users, who are possibly using 10 GB or less data per month. Meanwhile, mobile data tariffs have risen 60% in just three years, and are set to rise further . Additionally, the 5G capex investments have to be also recovered. All this implies further worsening of the data-economy unevenness. 

The speed divide is also a matter of concern. There is a big quality gap between the better-connected urban affluent subscribers and the aam janata, highlighted by the large difference between the median and the mean internet speeds recorded by credible test agencies. With 5G having been launched in several cities and towns, speed tests are picking up some of these values, and hence, the mean speed test results are tending to be deceptively higher. We need to assess realistically since 4G would continue to be the mainstay for a bit longer.

As of December 2022, there were 832 million broadband connections in India. Due to factors like multiple SIM ownership and difference between VLR and HLR, the number of unique broadband subscribers is estimated to be only around 500 million (a unique subscriber density of less than 40%). As cautioned by ITU, with 5G, in the near term, the ‘haves’ are likely to get more and more, while the ‘have nots’ will languish with inadequate connectivity. The NDCP 2018 targets of 55% unique mobile subscriber density by 2020 and 65% by 2022 are far away.

Several other hurdles are to be crossed to bridge the digital divide. These include inadequate digital literacy (only 38% households are digitally literate with urban at 61% and rural at only 25%), ICT devices for persons with disabilities, and internet affordability (India ranks 47 on internet affordability among 110 countries). Truly, we have miles to go on the highway of digital inclusion.

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First published on: 07-03-2023 at 05:30 IST
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