Access to the wire is creating gaps between two lives – the connected and the unconnected. The internet connected population includes the urban, educated and economically sound. While the unconnected are the poor people living in rural areas far from the world of digitization. Thus, digital divide in simple terms is the gap between those who have access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and those who do not. This gap runs across individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to their opportunities to access Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) through use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities.1
Availability and access to the internet depends on one’s geographic location, income level, education and other socio-economic factors. Today, we are far from being a country where each family is connected to the internet. Moreover, the urban-rural divide is of great significance in a country like India where nearly seventy percent of its population is in the villages.2 Persons living in remote areas remain isolated from digital connectivity. The urban-rural divide creates twin Indias – one with access and the other without. It deepens inequality.
The internet has completely changed the way we think and function. Today, avid users of technology and the internet cannot imagine life without it. Internet provides solution to a complicated and traditional system of working. Its strength lies in promptness, efficiency and transparency. It caters to all kinds of human desires, be it a necessity or luxury. Moreover, the internet has begun to dominate our life in the sense that the day it doesn’t function, our life comes to an almost halt. The internet has also taken over to provide comfort to its users – the most basic things such as a job application or the railway ticket reservation have become inconvenient and difficult without the internet. But the biggest setback we face is the growing gap between the digitally connected and unconnected. The urban educated population can provide solutions to their day-to-day problems with a click, while the others left out are caught in the trap of the procedural system of functioning of the society.
Today, a young urban boy wanting to purchase second hand books has access to hundreds by simply logging on to a website. He is the master of his choice – he can also negotiate the price and choose the deal that suits him the best. While a young rural boy who lacks access to internet is left with no other option but to purchase the same with the best offer he gets in his neighbourhood.
The internet is a knowledge bank. A student who has access to the internet can make use of facilities such as e-learning, study tutorials and information. He is able to choose from a variety of study material and research data. While, the other not so privileged student living in a village is dependent on his old and un-updated books. He spends hours toiling to find what he needs while his counterpart can easily filter and select what is appropriate to his need. The internet provides a wide array of opportunities in areas of health, communication, commerce, transport, education and knowledge. This is clearly hidden from the majority of the population in the country.
Digital Divide is a result of various socio-economic problems including poverty, illiteracy, high data charges and improper infrastructure. The rural population of our country is still far from the revolutionary world of the internet which is brightening the lives of our urban population. The rural population is unaware and unaffected by the positive change internet usage can have on their lives.
Another problem lies in the perception of the internet. A section of rural population believes that the internet is for the rich and mighty. They do not believe that the internet has the power to change their lives for the better. Rather, they feel it is more for luxury and entertainment. As a result, their response towards internet adoption is lukewarm. However, this perception can be dispelled through education. But at the same time, a big obstacle in bridging the divide is illiteracy. Although the literacy rate has risen over the years, the number of people having access to the internet remains very thin. Therefore, providing internet in rural areas through policy and regulation is imperative but redundant without providing e-learning and digital literacy. What will they do with an internet connection if they don’t even know how to use it? Although self-learning is an option but it would take much longer.
India is a country of many languages. A very miniscule percentage of its population speaks English. This makes internet adoption even more difficult as English language dominates the internet. How would digital information reach semi-literate villagers? This requires long term policy measures which include training and encouraging learning in English. Besides, the content also needs to be made available in Hindi and other regional languages.
Lack of adequate infrastructure in rural areas is also dividing India digitally. The Internet Service Providers (ISPs) lack incentive to provide Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in rural areas. Rural areas lack communication activity, productivity and revenue. Therefore, they argue that it does not make business sense for them to invest in backward areas.
What makes bridging the digital divide so important?
The internet is an enabler. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) lies at the heart of economic growth, social integration, innovation and development. It not only promotes social cohesion and but also improves the standard of living and helps in poverty alleviation. As per a recent World Bank Report, “A 10 percent increase in broadband penetration increases the per capita GDP by 1.38 percent in developing countries.”3 Imagine the impact that can have in a country like ours. Such an increase in GDP has the power to transform our country.
Obstacles to digital inclusion are numerous. Whether it is the lack of business incentive to ISPs or other socio-economic problems, bridging the digital divide is crucial to the development and social integration of the country. The same was realized, and the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) came into existence in the year 2002 to bridge the rural-urban divide. The New Telecom Policy – 1999 (NTP ’99) provided that the resources for meeting the Universal Service Obligation (USO) would be raised through a ‘Universal Access Levy (UAL)’, which would be a percentage of the revenue earned by the operators under various licenses.4 Therefore, the goal of universal penetration of the internet can be met through this fund.
The key to bridging the digital divide lies in strong policy and regulation. The government can provide different mechanisms and schemes to bring about social inclusion. But firstly, it is important to identify the neglected and rightful members of the society who need to be brought online. They could be recognized based on income groups or even through their geographical location. Thus, such targeted groups could be families who are Below Poverty Line (BPL) or even those who belong to the remotest of areas.
Various schemes have been introduced to bridge the Digital Divide. One such scheme is the Direct Benefit Scheme (DBT) for internet data packs.5 The DBT scheme is based on the successful scheme of Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) DBT or Pahal. It is suggested that the expense for the same can be met through Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF). Moreover, the tech companies arguing for differential pricing can contribute to the fund to achieve a digitally connected India rather than compromising its competitiveness and openness.
An alternative to the DBT can be through distribution of internet coupons in villages. However, the challenge of such a solution lies in its execution. How do we know whether the coupons are being used? How can we ensure the coupon reaches the targeted persons and they do not sell it or give it to others who already have access to the internet?
Some believe that advocating for a digitally connected India is still early for a society like ours. Most of our villages lack basic amenities such as electricity, sanitation, roads, healthcare, etc. Internet falls low on the priority list. Is Internet adoption at a very nascent and immature stage and other amenities need to be taken care of first? Is thinking of a digitally connected India too soon?
The Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) and big tech companies arguing for differential pricing believe that net neutrality and digital divide are closely connected to each other. Net neutrality means a free, open and competitive internet. It creates a platform which is tier less and does not distinguish based on user, site, content, application and platform. Freedom of choice, openness and independence remain at risk if net neutrality is compromised. Laws against net neutrality would distort the level playing field. Telecom operators argue that differential pricing, a well-established economic and legal concept, is in line with the government’s mandate of creating a Digital India. Since standard offers do not attract customers, by pursuing policies such as Zero Rating they would create a digitally empowered society. By providing certain content free of charge, they would be able to attract non-users and bring the government’s aim to life. But is this not a hollow argument? Is compromising the openness and competitiveness of the Internet the only way to bridge a digitally divided India?
The urban population is benefitting immensely from the convenience and simplicity the internet has brought into their lives. An online shopping website provides option of free delivery of things like books and food items. It also provides the option of different payment methods. On the other hand, a villager remains detached from the convenience of the ‘at your doorstep’ facility. Even if they get access to such a website, the question is – will it even be useful to them? Will the company deliver to such a far flung area? What additional costs would be attached? Thus, mere access to internet access is not the solution.
Today, India is far from being a digitally empowered society. However, what needs to be realized is that the digital divide needs to be addressed through strong policy and subsidies so that it does not widen the gap between the haves and have-nots and does not create an obstacle to social cohesion, economic growth, development and prosperity. By providing internet access, though we will not be able to immediately see results but it would definitely be a great start. After that, various initiatives would be required to promote digital learning. Moreover, a system would need to be put in place which would attract companies and online providers to reach the rural areas and address it as a market. While a digitally connected society provides massive scope for economic and social development, the same must not be achieved through compromising its neutrality.
1 Understanding the Digital Divide, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development; https://www.oecd.org/sti/1888451.pdf
2 “About 70 per cent Indians live in rural areas: Census Report”; The Hindu; Published on 15th July 2011; available at- http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/about-70-per-cent-indians-live-in-rural-areas-census-report/article2230211.ece
1 “Digital Inclusion will lead to inclusive economic development”; Forbes India; Published on 22nd February 2016; available at-http://forbesindia.com/article/budget-2016/digital-inclusion-will-lead-to-inclusive-economic-development-vijay-shekhar-sharma/42377/1#ixzz4Db6JlTue
2 Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), http://www.dot.gov.in/usof/universal-service-obligation-fund-usof
1 “Free Basics is a Walled Garden: Here’s a much better scheme- Direct Benefit Transfer for internet data packs”; The Times of India; Published on 1st January 2016; available at- http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/toi-editorials/free-basics-is-a-walled-garden-heres-a-much-better-scheme-direct-benefit-transfer-for-internet-data-packs/