Closing the Digital Divide

Statistics can put India to shame. But apart from the numbers Indians are qualitative. Without this quality minority India may not have got the software superpower status. Nevertheless it is the duty of the state to bridge the digital divide and take the progress to the logical conclusion.

The Times of India writes (8 October 2009)

One in five households worldwide will have access to broadband internet by the end of this year, according to a recent survey. India, however,
accounts for only a small number of those households. Not only is broadband penetration very low in the country, access to the internet itself is limited largely to urban areas. India’s phenomenal growth in mobile phone adoption has camouflaged how far behind it lags in terms of broadband penetration. The broadband subscriber base was a mere 6.8 million in July this year, in a country of more than a billion.

Why must India focus on broadband? Because it is a truly transformative technology that has the potential to accelerate growth and facilitate socio-economic change by making services easily accessible to those who need them the most. Barack Obama was on to something when he spoke of the “digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together” and pledged billions of dollars to increase the number of households and businesses with high-speed connections. Given that the Indian government defines broadband as internet connectivity of speeds at or higher than 256 kbps a generous definition by most standards India’s low numbers are particularly shocking for a country that prides itself on its IT prowess.

3G, which is about to be rolled out, provides an excellent opportunity to offer enhanced data and video services on a mobile platform. Telephone connectivity took off in India when it went wireless, and the same story could be repeated in the case of internet. Some measures are being taken to address the gap. The government’s universal service obligation (USO) fund, which was set up with the idea of providing affordable communication services in rural and remote areas, was recently expanded to include mobile services and broadband connectivity in these areas. BSNL and HCL Infosystems have announced that they would take advantage of USO funds to sell subsidised computers with broadband connectivity in these areas, a move that should provide increased access to consumers in rural areas.

However, significant growth in the broadband subscriber base is unlikely unless infrastructure is substantially upgraded, which requires innovative policies from the government. The cost of laying down cables and erecting towers is prohibitive, and the government needs to step in and help out private actors, or at least make it worth their while to go to rural areas. digital divide

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