The online symposium on the value of Internet Openness at the time of COVID-19 is a joint outcome of the Internet Governance Forum coalition on Net Neutrality and Community Connectivity. This is the first part of the fifth article in the series. The second part is available here. Read all the articles in the symposium here.

By Apar Gupta and Sidharth Deb

COVID-19 has forced the world to retreat and the internet has become more integral than ever before. The internet supports people to work from home, take online classes, stay in touch with loved ones, and access essential facilities. These essential facilities include e-payments, e-commerce, videoconferencing, instant messaging, critical information sites, e-medicine, social media, general entertainment, e-governance, etc. It also supports the continuing operation of institutions within government and the judiciary. These manifold applications of the internet convey the urgency for policymakers to support people on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Access to the internet and telecommunications is a prerequisite for social distancing. When India’s Prime Minister announced a national lockdown, there were waves of reverse migration from rural to urban centres. Osama Manzar observes that many of these people travelled in large groups disregarding social distancing protocols. This was because many did not have access to functional mobile phones. Reasons for this included not:

  • Paying mobile bills;
  • Recharging prepaid subscriptions;
  • Accessing functional devices; or
  • Having sufficient power in mobile devices.

The digital divide may also exacerbate systemic inequalities during COVID-19. Educational institutions across the world are transitioning to online classes. A recent report highlights that even in its national capital, nearly 1.6 million students from economically disadvantaged families are at risk of falling behind their classmates during the coronavirus pandemic. The digital divide erodes equal opportunities for certain students to compete since they suffer from inherent disadvantages like having no access to reliable internet connectivity or internet compatible devices. Similarly, another report observes that only 12.5 percent of students in India have access to internet connectivity at home. Such inequalities are also seen at a macro level as well.

The Multidimensional Nature of India’s Digital Divide

According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (“TRAI”), in September 2019, India had 687.62 million internet subscriptions. Even if we assume that each subscription is linked to a distinct individual, around half of India’s over 1.3 billion population does not have access to an internet subscription. However, according to our assessment the percentage of unconnected people is probably higher. In September 2019, India’s total number of internet subscriptions per 100 population was 52.08. Pertinently, India has a history of dual SIM usage. Therefore, these numbers need not convey a complete picture of the digital divide. In fact, in urban areas India has 104.25 subscriptions per 100 population whereas in rural areas it languished at 27.57. Such numbers confirm the extent of India’s rural-urban digital divide evident. India also struggles with a stark gender divide when it comes to internet access. As Smriti Parsheera remarks that the GSMA in a 2019 report observed that only 16% of women in India have access to mobile and internet services.

Paradoxically, even these multifaceted inequities coincide with a widening of India’s internet base. In June 2016, India had approximately 350 million internet subscriptions. This growth began with the entry of Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL) which yielded a manifold reduction in data prices. India now has the cheapest mobile data rates in the world and the world’s highest average wireless data per user per month — at more than 10 GB per month.

This period has also seen India’s retail telecom market shrink. Plummeting data prices and ARPUs have led to a competitive multiplayer market becoming a virtual three player ecosystem. Moreover, the prevailing stress within its telecom sector means there is a risk of further exits of telecom operators. Such eventualities also pose a risk to India’s existing, albeit suboptimal, telecom network capacity.

Stakeholders must keep a watchful eye on this since India’s internet growth story is mobile-first. India has only 22.26 million wireline internet subscriptions. Therefore, the digital divide is a continuous moving target. 3G/4G LTE mobile connections struggle to sustain applications which require high speed and low latency connectivity. With the ongoing pandemic demonstrating the importance of solutions like videoconferencing, there is a need to consider the quality of internet people have access to. In this regard in March 2020, Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index ranked India 130th in terms of mobile and 71st in terms of fixed line internet speeds.

Addressing bandwidth Inequities

When considering access, interventions must address issues ranging from universal coverage to bandwidth inequities. India has 625.42 million “broadband” internet subscriptions. Therefore, more than half the people in India do not have access to broadband. Unfortunately in India, the term itself remains a misnomer.

India’s telecom authorities define “broadband” as an internet connection with a minimum download speed of 512 kbps.  In contrast, the US classifies fixed line services as broadband when they have a minimum download speed of 25 Mbps and upload speed of 3 Mbps. For mobile connections it is 5 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads.

India must approach access through the lens of modern website/application design, and domestic network capacity. This includes revising metrics for measurement like the definition of “broadband”. India must also address the bandwidth divide in terms of unequal availability of telecommunication capacity. A 2014 study found that China, US and Japan combined for half of the world’s total installed telecom bandwidth potential.

India has commenced its own set of initiatives to remedy this.  Its BharatNet project is the world’s largest rural broadband connectivity programme. It is designed to offer rural residents subsidised access to high speed internet connectivity and help otherwise unconnected people access essential online offerings like e-medicine, e-health, e-education, e-governance, e-retail, etc. Specifically it is meant to augment middle mile infrastructure capacity, through the deployment and operationalisation of fibre optic networks (100 MBPS) to India’s villages. Once connected, the last mile connectivity is to be executed through the installation of village-level WiFi hotspots and 4G base stations.

The targeted date for completion for the project was March 2019. Had these targets been met, the rural population’s ability to navigate the pandemic would have been easier. However, the project’s central portal reveals that the project remains far from completion owing to several setbacks. This includes delays in laying optic fibre cables, village, wi-fi installation and operationalisation, connection and equipment installation of OFC, etc. The reasons behind these delays and setbacks are manifold, and include slow on-ground permissions processes, fiscal constraints and questions with respect to incentive structures.

Consequently, the Indian Government has pushed its timeline for completion to August 2021. Once complete, the government aims to ensure that all internet access providers (including mobile operators, ISPs, cable TV operators and content providers) can provide last mile services in rural areas in a non-discriminatory manner.

So What’s Next?

As a first step, Indian authorities must intervene immediately to address the accelerating need for everyone to be digitally connected, with both demand and supply side interventions. Interventions should strive to bridge inequalities and maximise societal impact, and must be aligned with:

  • Current network availability and concomitant capacity;
  • The state of India’s telecom market; and
  • Prevailing resource constraints.

Here, India may take cues from recent efforts in the US, UK and Europe.

From a demand side we need to consider strategies which can increase availability of infrastructure which supports high speed internet at the last mile. Second, the end user must have access to sufficient/affordable voice and data services. In addition users from disadvantaged backgrounds require support in accessing internet compatible devices as well. For instance, the UK which has decided to deploy 4G wi-fi routers for students in disadvantaged communities to be able to access for free. Similarly, US lawmakers are looking to introduce a Bill, to utilise a particular fund of USD 2 billion which can be controlled and disbursed by the FCC to schools and public libraries. These institutions will be allowed to spend allocated funds towards purchasing wi-fi hotspots, routers and internet connected devices.

On another note, we have also observed that telecom operators in the US have taken a pledge along with the FCC to make best efforts to not disconnect user subscriptions for non-payment of bills. Similarly, telecom operators in Europe are offering free voice and data services (with monthly allowances) for certain demographics like senior citizens or healthcare professionals.

Similarly, Indian authorities should consider commencing an initiative which utilises resources available under a central Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), National Disaster Relief Fund and State Disaster Response Funds. These funds may be mobilised toward facilitating public wi-fi hotspots, 4G routers, internet devices and so on, in particular targeting benefiting students from underprivileged backgrounds, informal workers, healthcare workers, first responders, and people from marginalised communities.

These funds must be targeted at interventions which can maximise public benefit. Therefore, when it comes to rural areas, they must be designed to augment public access to crucial internet-enabled services. Funds must therefore be allocated to set up high speed internet availability at spots like Common Service Centres, post offices, cyber cafes, public wi-fi hotspots, schools, public libraries, public kiosks, etc. Even as the aspiration remains ensuring each household having access to high speed broadband coverage, such initial measures will allow for greater coverage of free/subsidised internet connectivity to otherwise under connected demographics. Further, it would also allow people to access essential services connected with government and judicial institutions.

From a supply-side perspective, there is a need to consider ways to raise existing network capacities. These may include increased operator access to other unused or underutilised spectrum. Further, there is a need for the central government to work with state and local governments in improving processes for streamlining of local permissions for right of way. At the same time there is a need for us to assess how shifts in network traffic are affecting existing network capacities and whether there is in fact any deterioration in network performance or quality of internet connectivity. India must be strategic if it aims to make internet affordable and high quality internet universally available. This also involves adequate incentives for private sector players.

In Part 2 of this essay series, we analyse key governance issues Indian authorities will need to address to preserve the openness of the internet.

*

Apar Gupta is the Executive Director of the Internet Freedom Foundation and is a 2020 Ashoka Fellow for Social Entrepreneurship.

Sidharth Deb is the Policy and Parliamentary Counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation.