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5G – The Messiah to pull India out of Digital Divide?

With the launch of 5G on October 1 by the Hon’ble PM, the entire nation is on an all-time high with the expectation of tremendous digitization benefits therefrom. However, it might be wise to take note of the caution of the apex global telecom body, International Telecommunications Union (ITU), who, in their 2018 Report titled Setting the Scene for 5G – Opportunities and Challenges advised that “It will be commercially challenging to deploy 5G networks in rural areas where demand tends to be lower – consequently, rural areas may be left behind, thereby increasing the digital divide.” The have-nots might find themselves more distanced from the haves accessing 5G. This dangerous situation must give us pause, and we need to reflect on where we stand today and the best way forward to reduce the digital divide. As rightly cautioned by a leading national media agency, “Now that the launch euphoria is over, it is time for a reality check on the challenges that could come in the way of making 5G available to the masses.” This is all the more relevant in the context of our national goal of Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas.

We need to firstly appreciate that in today’s world, digital divide does not refer only to merely the divide in respect of voice and data communications. One needs to see active and equitable usage of all the critical digital services in order to consider the divide between haves and have-nots at the minimum. Therefore, questions arise as to usage of digital transactions, healthcare, digital education, B2C services in ecommerce, digital agri-delivery chain, etc. And, of course, 5G would profoundly impact the quality and availability of all such services. It is actually the less affluent sections of society and the rural population that are in greater need of the delivery of such critical services. If 5G, more expensive and difficult to rollout and 5G phones and consumer devices far costlier, rural areas would be major laggards in these areas as ITU has cautioned already. In fact, as again pointed out by the national media agency, “The biggest challenge to the mass adoption of 5G services is the availability of affordable phones.” Experts opine that meaningful 5G connectivity is only possible with mid-level featured smartphones in the range of Rs 22,000–25,000, and mass adoption is not possible at this price level.

Experts also caution that pandemic has shown that smartphone availability does not necessarily translate into access to critical digital services. It is, therefore, useful to examine the ground reality as regards the state of internet inclusivity in India today. Data from Statista – a research agency of global repute – reveals the ranking of all countries by the Inclusive Internet Index which provides a rigorous benchmark of national-level internet inclusion in 120 countries on the basis of four categories – availability, affordability, relevance, and readiness. As per this exercise, India is ranked at the 50th spot globally and 12th among Asian countries. The ranking as per each of the four categories is as shown below:

Note: Score 0–100 where 100=most inclusive internet environment

5G could present major challenges for improving or even maintaining every one of these categories
India’s glaring underperformance in the availability pillar is in large part the reason for its placement, and this weak performance is owed to low internet usage and quality, and widening gender gap in mobile phone and internet access in the country. It may be noted that despite the large number and consistent increase on accessibility, internet penetration in the country is only 47 percent, below the worldwide average.

India social media statistics

Total population 1.40 billion
Active social media users 0.467 billion
Number of Internet users 0.658 billion
Number of mobile Internet users 0.601 billion

In comparison, 99 percent of population in Denmark, UAE, and Ireland had access to internet.

It is evident from the discussion above that there needs to be a critical review of internet inclusivity in India, and we have to ask the question, why is the tremendous increase in access to internet and associated services (e.g., payments) not translating into overall improvements in India’s ranking on global indices.

Relevance. We are 29th in the world rankings. This means that while we are not so badly off, we have a long way to go. To improve, we need to have a far greater availability of local content – this is particularly important for such a diverse sub-continent like India. The content used also needs to be more relevant, i.e., related to e-finance, e-health, e-commerce, and, of course, reasonable usage of e-entertainment. However, in our case, mobile phones tend to be used significantly for binge-watching of movies, casual chats, etc. Approximately, 31 percent of rural households have mobile internet access, but mostly used for watching movies!

Usage of social media is very important nowadays for achieving good inclusivity. Happily, we are pretty good in using connectivity for social media (as seen in the table above), and are among the largest users of social media in the world.

Importantly, transactional usage is a much smaller part – payments, e-commerce, G2C, etc. An analysis of the above shows Indian language internet usage is growing rapidly, driven by availability of more websites and more social media. Banking and a few e-commerce sites are now offering Indian language transactions. However, this is only part of the story. To effectively reach the level that our Asian compatriots are already in, we need to do what they have done.

The common service centers (CSCs) are ideal spots to help in rural digital development. But much more needs to be done by way of providing consistent bandwidth, local network access, more applications, etc. CSCs need to urgently adopt the PM WANI Public Wi-Fi architecture to integrate effective connectivity in the rural population.

Gati Shakti is a great national initiative to create and manage infrastructure all across the country on a multi-modal connectivity infrastructure, and this should be leveraged to ensure that we cover all of the population with landlines, 4G/5G, satcom, and Wi-Fi networks. One needs to break down artificial barriers by way of restrictions, licensing costs, high duties and levies, etc. Importantly, we need to have far more affordable 700MHz spectrum made available to the operators. Also, we do need to have adequate local manufacturing. Without this, a full local 5G set, including the above, is an impossible dream. And without that, we will not have any Atmanirbharta and true inclusivity.

For a country like India, with a high portion of mobile-based internet usage compared to the advanced economies and a huge portion of public services on internet (e.g., UPI, CoWin) compared to the mid-tier economies, it is high time to develop a relevant set of internet quality assessment metrics more suited to our needs. Existing data shows a rather encouraging picture, but the ground reality is more reflected by the data on inclusivity given in earlier paras. As the maxim goes, “What we cannot measure becomes more difficult to improve.” We urgently need our own equivalent of Gini coefficient for social equality customized to effectively characterize the internet economy.

Digital Divide is not just a slogan, it is real and painful. We can overcome this only by dedicated effort and passion to achieve equality using modern tools. India has a great opportunity to bridge our large digital divide and lead in 5G through innovative actions and measures.

The article is co-authored by KV Seshasayee, an ICT Consultant

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