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The Indian Context: Internet for All?

Initially published in Together Magazine, May edition.

In the last few years, technology has become an integral part of our lives. Every day during the pandemic – with online meetings/classes, instant messaging and frequent zoom calls – is in stark contrast to the lives of millions of people in India. As we become increasingly reliant on technology to attend school, pay bills, entertain ourselves, read the news etc., we forget that over 600 million people in India lack access to the internet.

The internet is rapidly growing with numerous opportunities and innovations that can help underprivileged people – information about their legal rights, government programs, employment options, skills training programs, etc. Yet, the very people who will be most benefited by access to technology are the ones that are being left out. According to the GSMA report, affordability and literacy accounted for around 60% of the barrier to internet access in India. That is why recent ventures such as Digital Empowerment Foundation, Internet Saathi and Pratham Infotech are all working towards increasing access to the internet and technology in disadvantaged regions.

During COVID, Digital Empowerment Foundation has been working to redistribute excess, unused electronic devices such as phones and computers from urban areas to rural India in order to help businesses, education and interaction during the pandemic. This effort has been one part of their 20 year journey that has impacted nearly 30 million people from marginalized regions. Internet Saathi is an effort by Tata Trust and Google to improve accessibility to technology by training women in rural areas on digital literacy so that they can spread the knowledge they learn in their own communities. According to surveys, basic digital knowledge has enabled them to access the benefits of technology in the form of better education, healthcare and employment outcomes overall. Similarly, Pratham Infotech is an organization working to promote digital literacy in secondary school students across India. They utilize Computer Aided Learning methods in which students in government schools play interactive games which makes digital education more entertaining for students.

The government has also been working towards the goal of a ‘Digital India’ by increasing accessibility to technology through various policies and programs. Despite the persistent efforts of the Government, and several NGOs to work on improving access to technology in India, the results are slower than anticipated. Even today, over half of India lacks access to the internet. Perhaps, looking to other countries could help direct India’s policy.

Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) between the government and private sector companies can help unlock tremendous value for citizens when it comes to internet access. For example, in São Tomé & Príncipe, the government partnered with an existing private telecom company, and invested in the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine fibre optic cable, resulting in significantly higher speed connectivity. The PPP created a win-win situation, where the government reduced the risk of investment and infrastructure for the private company, and in exchange, the government provided licences to other private players resulting in high speed connectivity, good private sector competition and low costs for consumers. Numerous other countries around the world have also poured hundreds of millions of dollars in PPPs to improve connectivity – Superfast Cornwall in UK (130 million pounds), Metroweb in Italy (300 million euros) and Metropolitan Networks Project (“MAN”) in Ireland (170 million euros). Even India has invested hundreds of crores in very successful public-private partnerships in the electricity and road infrastructure sectors.

Subsidizing high speed connectivity is another possible policy to improve internet access. Many developed countries implement subsidies to improve internet connectivity and connectivity speed in lower income and rural areas. With the vast array of opportunities and benefits offered by the internet rapidly increasing, the cost of subsidies is quickly becoming outweighed by the benefits. Just in November 2021, the Affordable Connectivity Program, a 14 billion dollar investment into improving internet speed and connection, was implemented in the US. Even in India, in September 2021, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommended subsidizing the internet for the poor.

As the world becomes increasingly digital, India’s ability to develop and grow will be hindered by the lack of access to the digital world. It is imperative that the government looks to other sectors and countries and implement policies to improve technology access.

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