Bridging the digital divide in India

18-Feb-2016 #Digital India Source: India Inc

India is a market of 400 million internet users, which must multiply considerably to meet the government’s mission to bring every citizen into the connectivity bracket as an enabler of its sabka saath, sabka vikas or “development for all” goal. But what is the best solution to provide this connectivity fast?

The success of the Indian government’s Digital India programme is reliant on bringing the country’s rural population in line with the urban in terms of ubiquitous internet connectivity.

According to an analysis by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), of a total of 400 million internet users in India, almost 87 per cent (276 million) access internet through a mobile device. As a result, the government’s National Telecom Policy sets itself a target of increasing mobile connectivity in rural areas by up to 70 per cent by 2017. By the end of this decade, it hopes to connect 100 per cent of the country’s population.

While this is widely seen as an advantage India can build upon and focus attention on mobile phone penetration, experts warn that building broadband and fibre optic networks are equally important to ensure development for all.

India Inc. had explored the topic in great detail during its 2nd annual Digital India Conclave with industry experts.

Udit Mehrotra, CEO of Spectranet, which specialises in cable broadband services in India, felt India was too “obsessed with mobile”.

He explained: “This not to say that mobile is not an important factor for bringing an inclusive growth as far as broadband is concerned, nationally. But mobile and mobile technologies can only go that far. We often forget the role of wireline technologies or the support that wireline essentially ends up providing to the mobile networks.

“The approach to providing broadband across India cannot just be a mobile-based approach or cannot just be a wireline-based approach for that matter. It has to be both.”

Well penetrated wireline networks enable mobile networks and also help take some stress off the mobile networks. It offloads a lot of traffic from the mobile networks onto the wireless networks.

“But in our country we are so heavily dependent on the mobile networks because of the lack of strong wireline networks that it ends up putting so much pressure on the networks that at some point of time, they are bound to crumble,” Mehrotra warns.

The answer seems to lie in bridging the connectivity gap with a cocktail of solutions. Rupinder Singh, director, sales business development – Internet of Everything at Cisco, highlighted the need for the government to make the path smooth for private players to invest in new technologies in rural areas.

He said: “There are two ways in which the government can act as a catalyst here. One, allow and act as a catalyst to use the wireless technologies… to bridge the last mile gap. Second, is by educating the rural masses about the usage of the same. That will instigate private operators to start investing there.

“Ultimately, it will be fibre which will be reaching out over there but you need certain time for fibre to reach out to rural India. For that you have to bridge the gap. To bridge the gap to the last mile, we need to see what technologies are available and start using that.”

While views on striking the right balance for a perfect connectivity model for India may vary, all experts are agreed on internet no longer being a luxury but an absolute essential for the world’s fastest growing economy.

According to Karan Bedi, COO of Eros Now: “It’s an essential commodity now. In the US… it has been classified as ‘voter earned power’. So that’s a very important statement that the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] made that this is not a luxury anymore, this is not an open system anymore. They brought it into a higher state of regulation because they considered it to be that core to existence.”

Whatever the delivery process and technology may be, the key goal should be to bridge the digital divide. Being on the wrong side of the divide means being unable to play a meaningful role in the modern economy.

One point worth noting is that while connectivity is of paramount importance, there should also be a lot of emphasis on making Internet truly accessible. This means providing the necessary skills to those on the wrong side of the digital divide to effectively benefit from today’s digital economy.

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