Voice and Data|September 2020
Despite steep growth in the number of internet users, India still has 670 million unconnected people. “Internet for All” should be the next big target

Yesterday’s news was consumed over a cup of tea in the morning, maps were still printed on paper, long-distance calls were made only to convey news of a wedding or a death in the family and cameras were what you took with you on a vacation. YOLO and FOMO were not yet words. If, you went to sleep around the time of the millennium bug and like Rip Van Winkle, have just woken up after twenty years, you are unlikely to recognize India.

Almost nothing has been left untouched by the internet. The way we learn, interact with people, buy rail tickets, decide our driving route, order food, watch movies, pay bills, shop, and even how we troll and insult people – everything has been transmogrified. The internet has transformed governance – empowering people with information. It has given wings to microentrepreneurs and start-ups with access to markets and financial services. It has also created scores of internet billionaires. And social media, the internet on steroids, has consumed almost everyone who is online.

Like with any other powerful tool, the internet too has its underbelly – it has given us deepfakes, cybercrime, and the dark web. It has caused the death of children obsessing over online games. It may have made the world a little more insular. It has most certainly led to mental health and self-esteem issues from the endless barrage of others’ happiness being chronicled on social media. Some have to resort to social media de-addiction and digital detox.

All things considered, the internet has been a godsend. And from the days of the long waiting periods for the status symbol called a phone which went dead every time it so much as drizzled, to being abreast of the world in telecom technology, we haven’t done badly. Depending on whose numbers you have greater faith in among Statista, AIMAI, and TRAI, there are between 500 and 700 million broadband subscribers in India.

The general agreement is that roughly one in two people in India have access to the internet. According to TRAI, by March 2020, over 670 million people had access to the internet – a phenomenal growth rate particularly over the last four years; over 40% annually compounded. At 11 GB per month, we are each consuming thrice as much data as the average American! Half of our internet users are now in rural India. 54% of India’s internet users are in the 20 to 39 age group. And there are more than 210 million women internet users in India.

That India now has the second-largest number of internet users in the world may be worth celebrating, but it only underscores the irony of having the highest number of the unconnected – 670 million people in India have no access. In a familiar India versus Bharat story, while three in four urban Indians have access to the internet, only one in three has access to it in our villages. Only one in three women has access. And the poor and the old have little or no access. The odds are heavily stacked against the poor, middle-aged, rural woman. Access is hugely skewed.


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September 2020