This article was first published by Mint on December 28, 2017.
At a Community Information Resource Centre at Chanderi, in Madhya Pradesh, a 10-year-old boy comes in and spends time watching YouTube videos of his favourite actors dancing in their movies. He downloads the videos and saves them to his smartphone and runs back home to practise the moves. Engrossed in his own world, he doesn’t notice that other people at the centre are also learning skills from video-based tutorials. Online audio-visual content in regional languages is immensely popular in India because of the dominance of the oral culture and low literacy rates in rural parts. But for this to grow, good mobile internet connectivity is an essential requirement.
India’s low ranking of 109 for mobile internet speed and 76 for broadband speed by popular speed testing service Ookla shows the long way we have to cover before we can make quality internet connectivity a reality in this nation that envisions a Digital India. The global average for mobile internet download speed is 20.28 mbps compared to India’s 8.80 mbps. The country does fare a little better when it comes to broadband download speeds—18.82 mbps compared to the global average of 40.11 mbps. Among its South Asian neighbours, Myanmar ranks 94 for mobile internet, Nepal is at 99 and Pakistan is at 89.
More than broadband speeds, India—where there are more than a billion SIM cards—needs to ensure that good quality and seamless mobile internet connectivity is available to users across the country since this is the most popular and accessible way for people to get online, especially in rural areas.
No doubt mobile penetration in India is expanding at a rapid rate and the potential for growth in the mobile and data market is huge. In response, private service providers are working towards improving the user experience. OpenSignal’s State of Internet Network in India report for October states that Idea Cellular and Reliance Jio have increased their areas of coverage. Reliance Jio’s 4G speed has increased but that of its competitors has declined. Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular have increased the availability of LTE network countrywide.
When it comes to overall downloads speeds, Airtel leads the way with Idea and Vodafone tied at second place. Jio’s entry into the market, which was met with much fanfare, has created a flurry among competitors to increase access and improve services. This atmosphere of competition must result in better quality of services for users. On the government’s part, the Bharat Net project has increased connectivity to rural areas although it is plagued by problems, especially in terms of deadlines. Recently, the centre announced plans to increase minimum mandated mobile and broadband speed to 2 mbps from the current 512 kbps. This is a welcome move although still a bare minimum if the government’s ambitious Digital India, Smart Cities and cashless economy programmes are to be implemented successfully.
Besides the availability of connectivity, cost is an important factor that needs to be addressed in India to truly reach the last mile. Broadband costs have steadily fallen in recent years and with healthy competition in the market, prices are unlikely to fluctuate too much. Reliance Jio’s entry into the mobile internet market with its free data plans led Airtel, Vodafone and others to slash rates.
Despite falling rates, the cost of installation and monthly plans are too expensive for those in lower income households—the majority of the Indian population. This is why small data plans that cost Rs20-50 per pack are more popular in rural parts than bigger data plans. These allow users to access WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube to get their daily social media fix. However, keeping in mind how popular video content is in India and the fact that downloading videos consumes more bandwidth, these data packs do not go a long way. If the internet is to be leveraged as a truly empowering tool, access for those who need it most has to be made more affordable.
Cost has been a major deterrent—besides other reasons with deep roots in a patriarchal society—when it comes to the digital gender divide. Unicef’s State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a Digital World report says only 29% of all internet users in India are female. In rural areas, only 12% of users are female. This gap exacerbates inequality in a global economy that is becoming more reliant on digital skills.
Note here that watching beauty tutorials, recipes, and dance videos may seem like frivolous pursuits to some but for many who live in restrictive societies, these videos help impart valuable skills which could be monetized eventually.
Faster download speeds, wider coverage and low-cost data plans need to be championed by private companies and government initiatives in order for India to produce digitally literate citizens who can compete in the global digital economy in years to come. Bullet trains can wait, let’s get bullet internet first.