The digital divide-tomorrow may be too late


Government schemes, including the flagship Digital India programme, promise ubiquitous broadband and e-services to all.

By J S Deepak

India began its tryst with destiny in 1947, when it had a total of 63,000 telephones for its population of 340 million. By 2000, this number had touched 30 million. Thereafter growth exploded, fuelled by private enterprise, cellular technology and low tariffs. Today, we have more than 1,200 million connections, 750 million internet users with wireless connections accounting for more than 95% of both. Indeed, mobile phones with voice, data and video on the go have also been a game changer in the way we communicate, transact business, buy products and services and even entertain ourselves!

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This growth, however, has also spawned huge inequality. It manifests itself in the form of a digital divide, where about 650 million Indians, especially those in the shadow of life — the poor, the marginalised and the needy — do not have access to the internet, something that many of us take for granted. They are thus deprived of the huge array of benefits this technology unleashes and literally places at our fingertips!

The causes of the digital divide are not difficult to fathom. The absence of connectivity is one. Private investment follows the promise and potential of profits. It is, therefore, no surprise that high-speed broadband networks of private telcos are dominant in urban centres with a greater ability to pay for services.

Absence of digital literacy, or the inability to use a computer, device or smartphone, is the second reason for lack of access to digital technology. Some estimates suggest that less than a fifth of rural households are digitally literate.

Unaffordable devices and smartphones is another hurdle in accessing e-services. The cheapest smartphones and internet plans are clearly beyond the reach of many families. In an ecosystem where more and more services are moving online, their handicap gets magnified. If we do not rapidly make investments to make India 5G ready, inability to roll out the latest technology will become another obstacle to providing state of the art digital services to most.

Government schemes, including the flagship Digital India programme, promise ubiquitous broadband and e-services to all. And there has been progress. But alas, between the idea and its implementation there remains a large gap that perpetuates and even accentuates this divide. And the dominance of market forces in the telecom sector makes matters worse!

The pandemic has further magnified the adverse consequences of this divide. Only about 15% of government schools have broadband connections and about 40% have tablets or computers. In this scenario, tens of millions of the poorest children have little chance to access their lessons virtually at schools or in homes! Their learning levels will consequently regress leading to eventual dropouts. This can lead to cascading inequality for a whole generation!

Similar is the story in healthcare. During the recent second wave of Covid 19, the upper and middle classes in urban areas had access to tele-consultation and could voice their distress on social media. However, those in villages with no access to digital networks, often suffered silently. Even the CoWIN platform for vaccination, commendable by itself, stands out as a striking example of inequity as only the digitally savvy can use this application.

What then could be a way forward?

We need to accept that there can be nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of un-equals. Addressing the digital divide, therefore, requires special, urgent and focused efforts of the government. Second, a large investment of the order of $ 10 billion, needs to be made, year after year, in digital infrastructure. The Universal Service Obligation Fund of the Telecom department alone is inadequate to finance this expenditure.

The establishment of a Broadband Infrastructure Fund with a large corpus from private, multilateral and government sources, including spectrum auction revenues, is a must. Our telecom sector today is in poor financial health. Thus, the government has to pitch in big time as has been done by other large economies that are digitally advanced.

Third, to design and construct digital highways, their rural branches, and ensure their optimum utilisation by sharing the infrastructure, an empowered entity needs to be set up which is accountable for quality and timeliness. Such an approach seems to have served the roads sector well. Fourth, digital skills, required today both for life and for livelihoods, must be imparted on a war footing by transforming government digital literacy programmes into skilling missions, expanding outreach, including through the private sector. Fifth, the last mile delivery of services has to be made a reality. Connectivity, devices and handholding assistance of trained persons at village service centres, schools and clinics is imperative.

Many would wonder if the common man in India is in dire danger of being left behind. The jury may still be out on this, but one thing is clear. Without the power of the internet behind him he has little chance. The best time to address the digital divide was a decade ago. The second-best time is now! Tomorrow may be too late if we value inclusive development.

(Ambassador J S Deepak worked as Secretary Telecom & IT, Government of India. Email: jsdeepakias@gmail.com)

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